Friday, September 30, 2005

The hazards of humour

Have you ever made a witty remark on a blog and offended someone who took it the wrong way?

Roger Ebert has that problem, too. Here's a Q&A from Ebert's Answer Man feature:
Q. Recently you have come under fire from readers who don't get the humor in your columns, as in your "Dukes of Hazzard" and "The Aristocrats" reviews. The print media is the absolute hardest place to be witty. A little piece of me dies every time one of your witticisms is mistaken for a sincere attack.
Andrew Zimmer, Los Angeles

I hope it is a very small piece. A depressing number of people seem to process everything literally. They are to wit as a blind man is to a forest, able to find every tree, but each one coming as a surprise.
Roger Ebert
"The print media is the absolute hardest place to be witty." Perhaps I'll take comfort in that the next time I make a joke and a fight breaks out. (Not that it has happened to me recently.)

Thursday, September 29, 2005

For the love of dialogue

Why do you blog? About a week ago, Jack explained the objectives that motivate him. Here's the condensed version:
  • This is a place where I can air out my thoughts about life and the experiences I have had and will have;
  • It is a place where I expect at some point in the future my children, grandchildren and beyond will be able to learn more about who I am/was;
  • the blog offers me an opportunity to continually practice my writing so that I can work upon honing my skills;
  • maybe someone will discover me and hire me to write a book;
  • and perhaps the most important thing is that this blog offers me the opportunity to interact with people I might not meet otherwise.
I'd like to pick up on Jack’s last point and explore it a bit.

I blog for the love of dialogue. In my day-to-day interactions, I find few people are willing to discuss meaningful issues in any depth. But in the blogosphere, I can seek out people who are exploring the subjects that fascinate me:  religion, law, politics, history, sociology, psychology, philosophy, art — basically any discipline that offers insight into human individuals and societies.

By dialogue, I do not necessarily mean disagreement. Bloggers are too quick to find fault with one another! Political blogs get boring pretty quickly for this reason:  the exchange of views consists of punches and counter-punches which never add up to anything.

It’s OK to disagree with me; my ego is strong enough to cope with a little rough-and-tumble. But a good dialogue adds one insight to another, creating a snowball effect.

Early in our relationship, Mary P. and I came up with a simile. "When we talk," one of us said, "it's like we're building with bricks:  I lay a brick, you lay a brick, I lay one, you lay one …. The finished structure is something neither one of us could have built on our own."

At this point I must interject that I have nothing against "lurkers". In fact, I think the term is unfairly pejorative:  surely a lurker is some pervert who hides in the bushes outside your house and peers into your bedroom window!

People who read Simply Put aren’t perverts … no more than anyone else, at any rate. When no one leaves a comment, I take comfort in the fact that my tracker shows that people are still visiting. So thank you, lurkers, one and all.

But I love a good dialogue. Consider my recent post on presuppositions, for example. One person after another contributed an insight, adding a brick to the foundation I had laid:  Misanthrope, Mrs. Aginoth, Mr. Aginoth, and Snaars. Go back a little further, to my post on sharia law, and others make a contribution:  Aaron, Jack, and 49erDweet. And once in a long while I hit on a topic that draws comments even from casual visitors.

I enjoy writing, and I benefit greatly from the discipline of setting my thoughts in order for others to explore. But it requires a significant investment of time. Without the dialogue, which I find so stimulating, I would quickly lose the motivation to blog.

That's why my blogroll is entitled, Cast of characters. I have the lead role here at Simply Put, but you share the stage with me.

Monologues are boring; your comments are what make the experience interesting.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Pregnant and disabled in public

No, this isn't really a follow-up to my earlier post, Pregnant in public. I just couldn't resist the urge to echo the title here.

This is "Alison Lapper Pregnant", a statue currently on display in Trafalgar Square. It is an accurate representation (aside from its 16-foot height!), having been made from a plaster cast of Ms. Lapper's body.

Alison Lapper was born with no arms and only partial legs (the condition is called phocomelia). But in all other respects she is perfectly normal — including the capacity to conceive and carry a baby.

Ms. Lapper often poses nude. I believe she conceived the concept for this photo herself (source).

Ms. Lapper survived a very difficult start in life. She was raised in an orphanage where the staff terrorized the children. She would have been adopted into a loving home, but her mother put a stop to it for some reason. Eventually she got married, but her husband wanted only to abuse her. Heather Mallick tells the story:
No family member on either side spotted anything wrong with him. … On their wedding night, he shut the door of their room and turned to her with an odd expression on his face. "You're mine now and you'll do as I tell you."

The greatest thing any woman should fear is a man who seeks to control. Imagine a man who feels the need to control even a limbless woman. Once, he started to pull her slowly off the kitchen table, mocking her as she approached the edge where she would fall and break her head open. Desperate, she bit his arm, drawing blood. She divorced him.
Today, Ms. Lapper is an artist (she paints by holding a brush in her mouth) and the single mother of a five year old son, Parys. (After a brief relationship with an able-bodied man she says: "I quite unexpectedly, and quite happily fell pregnant, and he ran a mile". Source for the photo.)

The statue will only be displayed in Trafalgar Square for eighteen months. Even so, it is causing some controversy. Some critics don't think it's art, or at least not very good art. And some members of the British public don't think the subject matter is suitably historic/heroic for Trafalgar square. Phil says:
I think it's a cool statue, but I don't think it's right for here. All the other statues in the Square are of national heroes, so — no offence to her, because she's a great person and she's done some really good work — I think we should have another national hero up here.
But Ms. Lapper says,
I think it’s brilliant. Where else in the world can you see a 16-foot sculpture of a naked, disabled, pregnant woman? The fact that a major work by a well-known English artist [Marc Quinn] is concerned with disability is a turnaround — though Parys is most upset that he’s in my tummy and you can’t see his face. I’m not a champion of the disabled world, but it’s a joy when people come over after seeing me on TV and say it really made them think.
OK, maybe it isn't particularly inspired as a work of art. But a lot of contemporary art isn't very uplifting, whereas this piece is. Jackie says it beautifully:
It's a really beautiful piece, and I think it makes you look at the body of the person very sympathetically. It's very rounded, very appealing. I think that's a lovely thing to bring that forward — when we don't normally think of a disabled person's body as being beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. It's an interesting coming together of an aesthetic artform with a body that you wouldn't normally look at it in that way. I find it really affirming. I'd certainly prefer to see this than more sculptures of war heroes."
"I would pick Parys up by his clothes with my teeth and lay him across my shoulder. I breast-fed him for ten months with him in a sling across my chest. I've never been able to hold him in my arms, but we were very physical with one another, so we haven't missed out."
source for the text; source for the photo

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Debating etiquette, part 4: Presuppositions

Several months ago, I published three posts on debating etiquette. The most recent one was published on July 4, so I think a recap is in order:
  • Introduction — Debating etiquette serves two purposes: it minimizes unnecessary offence and it improves the quality of a debate. Skilled debaters can tackle complex and emotionally-loaded issues constructively, and make incremental progress toward Truth.

    The series is not primarily about improving your debating technique. I refer instead to etiquette:  I aim to encourage people to be respectful and considerate in debate.

  • Part 1:  Assertions — There can be no debate without an assertion (more formally known as a proposition). If you want to improve your debating skills, begin here:  be precise in wording your assertions and reduce them to their essence before setting out to defend them.

  • Part 2:  Diversionary tactics — If your goal is to win the debate, diversionary tactics are your friend. But if your goal is to discover Truth — which I hope is your goal! — diversionary tactics are an obstruction to be avoided.

    The post provided a very basic introduction to logical fallacies. Whether they are introduced deliberately or they arise in ignorance, logical fallacies divert the course of an argument in a direction which hinders our pursuit of Truth.

  • Part 3:  Arguments — Assertions are important, but a series of assertions and counter-assertions is not sufficient in itself to constitute a debate. Assertions (opinions) have to be supported by the evidence. This is where arguments come into play. An argument appeals to objective facts, then proceeds to make rational deductions from the facts, in a methodical attempt to substantiate an assertion.

    The post focused specifically on the use of analogies to support an assertion. Analogies can be very illuminating, but only if they actually speak to the point at issue. What seems like a perfect analogy to me may be rejected as spurious by someone else.
From the beginning of the series, I envisioned four parts. I haven't posted part 4 until now because I was waiting for the right illustrative material to come along.

I'm glad I waited, because the perfect material is now available. Here is the final installment in the series — Debating etiquette, part 4:  Presuppositions.

The USA has just suffered through two very destructive hurricanes, Katrina and Rita. Inevitably, people are asking why it happened.

It is my firm conviction that Why? is an unanswerable question. But many people think they know the answer, and they have not hesitated to share their answers with us.

What interests (and amuses) me is this:  their answers are entirely determined by the presuppositions they bring to bear on the issue. One explanation contradicts another, because they are derived from incompatible worldviews.

The point can be illustrated from today's Ottawa Citizen. As Joel Kom reports, many Americans believe the two hurricanes were sent by God to punish the nation for its sins:
As a city known for gambling, drinking, drugs, sex, parties and other things sinful, New Orleans' fate is similar to Sodom and Gomorrha, two biblical cities of sin that were destroyed by God. It's no coincidence, some argue, that Katrina hit just a few days before the launch of the Southern Decadence festival, one of the biggest gay gatherings in the world.

The festival "has been cleansed," says Pastor Bill Shanks of the New Covenant Fellowship in New Orleans.

"There's no murder in our city now, that's been cleansed. Drugs, murders, we don't have that stuff anymore."

Pastor Shanks says the city was due for what he termed "God's judgment."

But how could Rita's targeting of Texas, a state known for a devout Christian population, be explained?

Steve Lefemine, director of Columbia Christians for Life, an anti-abortion ministry based in Columbia, South Carolina, points out that Texas has the fourth-highest abortion rate among U.S. states. New Orleans, he adds, had six abortion clinics in the area.

To emphasize his belief that abortions led to the hurricanes' landings, Mr. Lefemine posted a message on his ministry's website comparing an image of Katrina on weather radar to a picture of a fetus.
No matter what the facts may be, they will always be interpreted in accordance with our presuppositions. Why would God destroy New Orleans? That's easy! — the residents of the city were depraved. But why, then, would God smite Texas, which is heavily populated by evangelical Christians? Because of its many abortion clinics, of course!

It is impossible to falsify a cherished presupposition.

Let's move on to another illustration. A second contentious issue was debated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when New Orleans descended into anarchy. Again, people asked Why? And again, their answers were determined by their presuppositions.

In this case, your answer may hinge on what you think of the "welfare state". Suppose you are left-leaning. You think the welfare state is good, and the American every-man-for-himself ideal is bad. If those are your thoughts, you will agree with Doug Saunders' analysis. Mr. Saunders observes that Americans have
a shared belief that individual hard work, good luck and God's grace will bring a person out of poverty and into prosperity. But those very qualities can destroy the safety net of mutual support that might otherwise help people in an emergency.

"Fear itself motivates people in the U.S. — the fear that you could lose everything," said organizational psychologist Cary Cooper in an interview from his office at the University of Lancaster. "That creates the best in American society, the inventiveness, but the moment the net is pulled out, it becomes a terrible jungle." …

Historians point to a constant threat of self-destructive breakdowns that seem to dot U.S. history, belying the thin veneer of civility that sits between entrepreneurial prosperity and mass chaos. The individualistic, egalitarian, anti-authoritarian values that have made the United States succeed have always been accompanied by an every-man-for-himself ethos that can destroy the system itself.
Well, that's one perspective. But perhaps you are right-leaning in your views, and you think the welfare state is a disastrous idea. In that case, you would agree with Robert Tracinski. He noticed that the problems occurred in a community of public housing projects:
When confronted with a disaster, people usually rise to the occasion. They work together to rescue people in danger, and they spontaneously organize to keep order and solve problems. This is especially true in America. We are an enterprising people, used to relying on our own initiative rather than waiting around for the government to take care of us. … So what explains the chaos in New Orleans? …

75% of the residents of New Orleans had already evacuated before the hurricane, and of those who remained, a large number were from the city's public housing projects. …

There were many decent, innocent people trapped in New Orleans when the deluge hit — but they were trapped alongside … wards of the welfare state, people selected, over decades, for their lack of initiative and self-induced helplessness. The welfare wards were a mass of sheep …

What Hurricane Katrina exposed was the psychological consequences of the welfare state. What we consider "normal" behavior in an emergency is behavior that is normal for people who have values and take the responsibility to pursue and protect them. People with values respond to a disaster by fighting against it and doing whatever it takes to overcome the difficulties they face. They don't sit around and complain that the government hasn't taken care of them. And they don't use the chaos of a disaster as an opportunity to prey on their fellow men.
Like the fundamentalists whose point of view we considered earlier, Mr. Tracinski blames the victims. Why did the city of New Orleans descend into anarchy? Not because the people had lost everything — loved ones, homes, jobs, etc. And not because the infrastructure that sustains all of us in a modern civilization was utterly destroyed. And not because the various levels of government had apparently abandoned them to their fate.

No, the city descended into anarchy because people who live in public housing have no values; because people like them are "selected, over decades, for their lack of initiative and self-induced helplessness."

Yeah, right.

It fascinates me that Mr. Saunders and Mr. Tracinski are both so sure of themselves — and yet their views are utterly contradictory! Each writer knows that his analysis is sound. And it is — but only if his presuppositions are taken for granted and we reason from that starting point.

Briefly, one more related issue:  the inexcusably slow relief effort in New Orleans. Again, people asked Why?; and again, their answers were determined by their prior commitments. The Economist observed:
Pundits explained the government's failure in every way they pleased. Anti-war types blamed Iraq, particularly the fact that thousands of National Guard troops had been sent there. Environmental types blamed Mr Bush's lackadaisical attitude to wetlands. Many Democrats saw it as proof that Mr Bush and the Republicans cared nothing for America's poor and black.
For every set of presuppositions, there is a corresponding theory:  fundamentalist, left wing, right wing, anti-Iraq-war, environmentalist, partisan Democrat, etc., etc., ad infinitum. Political convictions, like religious convictions, can engender certainty where a little agnosticism would serve us better.

What shall we conclude from the above data?:
  1. It is easy to align the facts with your presuppositions and spin an elaborate theory. People think they're clever when they do it, but it's no more impressive than water flowing downhill. If you want to prove that you're clever, demonstrate that you can view the world sympathetically from someone else's vantage point.

  2. We need to be aware of our own presuppositions, and how they prejudice our conclusions. Too often, we think we have put forward a solid argument, but the foundation on which the argument rests is terribly shaky.

  3. We need to be patient with those who analyze the same data and reach wildly different conclusions. Too often, we think people are just being pig-headed when they fail to worship at the altar of our arguments. But the other person's position may be entirely valid, given his presuppositions. Since he is sincerely trying to be reasonable, we should not assume he is a jerk.

  4. We obviously need to take the debate back one giant step — back to the arena of presuppositions, where our conclusions were already determined before we began to reason.
If we are honest with ourselves, we will soon discover that our presuppositions are very difficult to prove. The other person will fare no better, and the agenda may have to shift.

Instead of beating one another over the head with our respective arguments, we may set out on a voyage of mutual discovery. Ultimately we may even experience the thrill of a paradigm shift — a very great and unsettling experience indeed!

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Mastering powerful emotions

From time to time, we are all overcome by strong emotions:  anger, despair, envy, fear, grief, guilt, loneliness, etc.

It is counterproductive to ignore such overwhelming emotions and pretend that they are not there. The person who is not mindful of his or her emotions will be mastered by them.

But surely mindfulness alone is not enough. How is it possible to master such powerful, internal forces? Thich Nhat Hanh offers a rare combination of spiritual insight and practical advice.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and poet. He was once nominated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In this excerpt from one of his books, Nhat Hanh is discussing Buddhist meditation. But the reader can benefit from these insights without necessarily assuming the lotus position and meditating in the formal sense of the word.

Stopping, Calming, Resting, Healing

Buddhist meditation has two aspects — shamatha and vipashyana. We tend to stress the importance of vipashyana ("looking deeply") because it can bring us insight and liberate us from suffering and afflictions. But the practice of shamatha ("stopping") is fundamental. If we cannot stop, we cannot have insight.

There is a story in Zen circles about a man and a horse. The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the man on the horse is going somewhere important. Another man, standing alongside the road, shouts, "Where are you going?" and the first man replies, "I don't know! Ask the horse!" This is also our story. We are riding a horse, we don't know where we are going, and we can't stop.

We have to learn the art of stopping — stopping our thinking, our habit energies, our forgetfulness, the strong emotions that rule us. When an emotion rushes through us like a storm, we have no peace. We turn on the TV and then we turn it off. We pick up a book and then we put it down. We sit with the person we love, but we don't know that she is there. We are someplace else, thinking about the past or the future.

The horse of our habit energy is carrying us along, and we are its captive. We need to stop our horse and reclaim our liberty.

Mindfulness is the energy that allows us to recognize our habit energy and prevent it from dominating us. The first function of meditation — shamatha — is to stop.

The second function of shamatha is calming. When we have a strong emotion, we know it can be dangerous to act, but we don't have the strength or clarity to refrain. We have to learn the art of breathing in and out, stopping our activities, and calming our emotions. We have to learn to become solid and stable like an oak tree, and not be blown from side to side by the storm. The Buddha taught many techniques to help us calm our body and mind and look deeply at them. They can be summarized in five stages:
  1. Recognition — If we are angry, we say, "I know that anger is in me."

  2. Acceptance — When we are angry, we do not deny it. We accept what is present.

  3. Embracing — We hold our anger in our two arms like a mother holding her crying baby. Our mindfulness embraces our emotion, and this alone can calm our anger and ourselves.

  4. Looking deeply — When we are calm enough, we can look deeply to understand what has brought this anger to be, what is causing our baby's discomfort.

  5. Insight — The fruit of looking deeply is understanding the many causes and conditions, primary and secondary, that have brought about our anger, that are causing our baby to cry. Perhaps our anger was triggered when our friend spoke to us meanly, and suddenly we remember that he was not at his best today because his father is dying. We reflect like this until we have some insights into what has caused our suffering. With insight, we know what to do and what not to do to change the situation.
After calming, the third function of shamatha is resting. Suppose someone standing alongside a river throws a pebble into the air and it falls down into the river. The pebble allows itself to sink slowly and reach the riverbed without any effort. Once the pebble is at the bottom, it continues to rest, allowing the water to pass by.

When we practice sitting meditation, we can allow ourselves to rest just like that pebble. We can allow ourselves to sink naturally into the position of sitting — resting, without effort.

Calming allows us to rest, and resting is a precondition for healing. When animals in the forest get wounded, they find a place to lie down, and they rest completely for many days. They don't think about food or anything else. They just rest, and they get the healing they need.

When we humans get sick, we just worry! We have to learn to rest. Don't struggle. There is no need to attain anything. Our body and mind have the capacity to heal themselves if we allow them to rest.

[adapted from chapter 6 of The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation]

   (recognition; acceptance; embracing; looking deeply; insight)

I invite you to comment on one of the above principles, and describe how it has helped you to master powerful emotions.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

High school education gets a failing grade

I don't usually post twice in the same day, but the list of subjects I'd like to address is expanding faster than I can write them up. Both of these posts were inspired by today's Globe and Mail, so I might as well publish them while the news is current.

And, as it happens, both posts address the same theme:  writing skills.

Ontario has been trying to fix its public education system. I thought we were making progress … but maybe not.

According to today's Globe and Mail, students who graduate from high school may still lack the fundamental skills they need to succeed in university:
Although professors have long lamented the English and math skills of their students, they are increasingly complaining that too many students — some with top marks — arrive on campus unprepared for the rigours of academia. These students struggle to string together a sentence, let alone form a paragraph.

"I have seen students present high school English grades in the 90s, who have not passed our simple English test. And I don't know why," said Ann Barrett, managing director of the University of Waterloo's English language proficiency program.
Several Canadian universities are discussed in the article:  the University of Ottawa, the University of Waterloo, George Brown College (all in Ontario), and Simon Fraser University (in British Columbia). All are grappling with the same problem.
At the University of Waterloo, officials immediately target certain students after administering an entrance exam in writing proficiency. Almost all students write a five-paragraph essay in their first week of school and are graded on grammar, punctuation and structure.

Ms. Barrett said that about 25 per cent of the students fail each year. Those students are required to get extra help.

"I'll tell you one thing that drives me crazy:  So many students don't know the difference between 'then' and 'than.' How is this possible?" Ms. Barrett asked. "I've read it hundreds of times. Isn't that taught?"
Please note, these are not students with dyslexia or some kind of learning disability — not when Ms. Barrett is describing 25% of her university's student body.

Professors in American universities face a similar challenge:
In a U.S. report released this month, 40 per cent of professors who were surveyed said that most of the students they teach lack the basic skills for university-level work. Further, the survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles found that 56 per cent cited working with unprepared students as a source of stress.
Here's my personal anecdote. In the 1990s, I returned to university as a "mature" student (i.e., I was in my mid-thirties). I had the advantage of a previous degree (in Theology) and a decade of real life experience behind me.

One of the first-year courses was explicitly designed to help students make the transition to university life. The first assignment we were given was a very simple one. We were given an article to read. The assignment was to summarize it.

I got 10 out of 10. It doesn't strike me as much of an achievement because the assignment was dead easy. But the professor was very impressed by my work — so impressed that he took me aside after class to demand an explanation!

Most of the students missed the point of the assignment. They went straight into "critical thinking" mode, explaining why the author was dead wrong, and asserting an alternative point of view.

I thought this was pretty bad. Imagine graduating from high school, and you can't simply read an essay and accurately summarize the author's argument. It's a core skill. You can't critique somebody else's position until you first understand it from that person's vantage point.

But maybe I was too tough on my fellow students. If they had any writing skills whatsoever — if, for example, they knew the difference between "then" and "than" — they were the cream of the academic crop.

*Sigh*. I hope the education system in the UK is a good one, or the Western world will be surpassed by Asia before we realize what's happening.

The best journalist in Canada

This story is not exactly a follow-up to my earlier post, Take back the night, although it addresses the same subject matter. It concerns the murder of another young woman in Ontario.

I share this story primarily because of the very moving account published in today's Globe and Mail. The author, Christie Blatchford, is a very talented writer; in my opinion, she stands head-and-shoulders above any other journalist in Canada.

Regular readers of the Globe and Mail may be surprised by my opinion. Ms. Blatchford usually covers the crime beat, and might be reflexively dismissed as a practitioner of tabloid journalism. In fact, she began her career with a tabloid chain.

My perspective on her is similar to my perspective on Stephen King. I think King is a brilliant writer, notwithstanding (a) the dark and sensational subject matter of most of his books; and (b) his unapologetic commercialism. Like King, Blatchford writes for the masses; and, like him, she is a supremely talented writer whatever subject she turns her attention to.

Of course, Blatchford is writing non-fiction; the stories may have a sensational element to them, but they are legitimate news items, too.

In this instance, Blatchford is writing about 25-year-old Alicia Ross, who lived in Markham (a suburb north of Toronto) until she disappeared shortly after midnight on August 17.

Two days ago, the family's next-door neighbour turned himself in at a local police station. Apparently the murder was not premeditated but occurred as the result of a dispute. The perpetrator has now been charged with 2nd degree murder.

Ms. Blatchford's column starts out a little melodramatically, in my opinion, but thereafter it's a good example of her craftsmanship.

Given the subject matter, it's a tough read. The tone is set here, with a quote from the victim's mother:
"If God had said to me, 25 years ago, 'I have a baby for you, and you will love her and she will love you, for 25 years, but then you'll have to give her back,' knowing Alicia and what a beautiful woman she became, I would have said 'Yes,' …"

"But God didn't give me the choice, and I wasn't prepared to give her back, not this way."
From there, Ms. Blatchford skillfully depicts the broken hearts and shattered lives of all concerned.

When I refer to "all concerned", I am not excepting the murderer. Unlike many murderers, his conscience was too sensitive to bear the burden of his guilt. That's why he turned himself in.

But Ms. Blatchford's art comes out most clearly in her depiction of Alicia Ross. In just a few paragraphs, we are given a window into the very soul of this woman. We didn't know her in life but, courtesy of Ms. Blatchford, we know her in death.

Sensational material? Yes. But outstanding journalism too.

btw, I notice that the Globe and Mail has appropriated a trick from the blogosphere:  they now invite readers to post comments in response to their articles.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Ontario to outlaw faith-based arbitration

Last week, the Government of Ontario promised to outlaw the use of faith-based arbitration to settle family disputes.

This story is a obvious candidate for my blog:  religion, law, and politics are among my preferred topics, and I often post on events in Canada which are likely to interest readers elsewhere. But this is a complex story and I needed a chunk of time to address it adequately. A little belatedly, here is my account of the issue.


The background was succinctly reported by the Globe and Mail (republished at
Ontario's Arbitration Act from 1991 provides for voluntary faith-based arbitration to resolve civil and family-law disputes. This allows Muslims, Jews and other religious groups to use the principles of their faith to settle matters such as divorce, inheritance and custody outside the court system.

In 2003, Syed Mumtaz Ali, a retired Muslim lawyer, established the Islamic Institute for Civil Justice, with an aim to train imams and religious scholars to resolve civil dispute in the community, a process already under way informally.

His announcement prompted the Ontario government to appoint former NDP attorney general Marion Boyd to review the Arbitration Act. She concluded there was no evidence women were being discriminated against in faith-based arbitration and recommended the existing arbitration system be strengthened.
International protests

Prior to last week’s decision, the Ontario government was reviewing Ms. Boyd’s report. Meanwhile, protests were occurring, not only in Canadian cities, but also in Paris, London, Stockholm, Amsterdam and Düsseldorf.

If Ontario had endorsed sharia, it would have been the first Western jurisdiction to take that step. Protesters saw it as a dangerous precedent. The Globe and Mail reported,
Homa Armojand, co-ordinator of the campaign, told about 300 protesters at Queen's Park that the lobby to allow faith-based arbitration for Muslims in Ontario is "not a coincidence, but part of a global move pushed by leaders of political Islam who need validation from the government of the West."
Objections to sharia

Sharia is a body of law governing every facet of life (presumably meaning there's little regard for a private sphere beyond the reach of legal authorities). It is based on Islamic principles, derived from several sources, including the Qur'an. Notwithstanding the fact that it is understood differently in different Muslim nations, critics say it is inherently discriminatory toward women:
  • male heirs receive a greater share of an inheritance than female heirs;
  • husbands, not wives, may initiate divorce proceedings;
  • in divorce cases, fathers are generally awarded custody of daughters who have reached the age of puberty; and
  • where it is taken to an extreme, sharia provides for the stoning of a woman found guilty of adultery, or the marriage of girls as young as eight years old.
In theory, faith-based arbitration (which is already practised) must comply with Canadian civil law. Decisions which are contrary to Canadian law may be appealed. But, according to an article at, critics
point to the fact that so many Muslim women are new immigrants who do not speak the language and have little understanding of their rights. It is feared this will lead them to comply with what ever rulings are handed out by the religious council deciding their case, no matter how much they suffer for it.

They also point to how the Orthodox Jewish system has been used against women in the past, to prevent them from getting a civil divorce. Under Jewish law a woman must be granted a religious divorce or she will not be able to remarry and any future children will be considered illegitimate. Men have coerced women into not applying for alimony and child support by threatening not to give them a religious divorce.

To a devoutly religious person these sorts of threats are very powerful. If carried out they will make her an outcast in her own community.
Note that broadens the criticism to include the Orthodox Jewish tradition. Opponents of sharia argue (with some justification, in my view) that all conservative religious traditions subordinate women to men.

Relation to provincial law

Canada, like the USA, has a federal system of government. Marriage is within provincial jurisdiction. Provincial governments set the standards concerning who can perform marriages, what the fees for the services cost, and what exactly constitutes a wedding ceremony. Where a marriage breaks down, it is up to the province to enforce divorce agreements. explains:
If a parent is negligent in fulfilling his or her requirements under the terms of the divorce agreement, it is the province that imposes penalties. Lack of child support, failure to comply with custody, and visitation orders, and alimony are all under the jurisdiction of provincial law.
Obviously this creates the possibility that the state may be called upon to enforce the faith-based decision of an arbitrator.

Ontario’s decision

Last Sunday, the Premier of Ontario decided it was time to stamp out the growing controversy. CTV news reported:
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty says there will be no sharia law in his province and that he will move to ban all faith-based arbitrations.

Seeking to end months of debate, McGuinty said he would not let his province become the first Western government to allow the use of Islamic law to settle family disputes and that the boundaries between church and state would become clearer by banning religious arbitration completely.

"There will be no Shariah law in Ontario. There will be no religious arbitration in Ontario. There will be one law for all Ontarians," McGuinty told The Canadian Press. …

McGuinty said such courts "threaten our common ground," and promised his Liberal government would introduce legislation as soon as possible to outlaw them in Ontario.

"Ontarians will always have the right to seek advice from anyone in matters of family law, including religious advice," he said. "But no longer will religious arbitration be deciding matters of family law."
Muslims and Jews respond

Some Muslim women lobbied against sharia. However, there are other Muslims, women included, who believe that Ontario has made the wrong decision. The Globe and Mail quotes Katherine Bullock, with the Islamic Society of North America:
Ms. Bullock said the aim of sharia is justice and that its values are compatible with Canadian values of justice, respect and dignity.

"The main understanding of women's equality in the West is the liberal feminist version, which is that if men and women are not treated equally and in an identical manner then women are being oppressed," she said.

"There are other understandings of what women's equality means, and one that is best expressed from the Koranic point of view is that women are different but equal."

For example, she said that although sons inherit more than daughters under sharia, men are also supposed to "maintain" women, so the imbalance is justifiable.
Jewish groups also object to the decision. They contend that a blanket prohibition of all religious tribunals is unjust:  "If there is a problem with sharia, they should settle it on its merits," said Rabbi Mordechai Ochs, chairman of the Rabbinical Courts of Toronto.

In other words, the Government of Ontario should not lump all religious tribunals together, but should evaluate the tribunals individually and allow some to continue to operate. According to Rabbi Ochs, "These rabbinical courts have been operating for decades with no complaints." argues against the Premier’s decision on non-religious grounds:
Ironically the granting of arbitration rights to religious bodies allows the government to exercise control over their decisions, and will offer women more protection from religious law than when these tribunals act in an unofficial capacity. …

As it stands right now there is no regulation of Sharia Law in terms of divorce, yet it is currently in use in many mosques throughout Ontario. This means that there are an unknown number of women being treated in exactly the manner the protesters fear will come about if this new legislation is enacted.

I don’t think it's possible to resolve this dispute tidily. I pose three questions for your consideration:
  1. If the state gives legal recognition to faith-based tribunals, and enforces the decisions of such tribunals, does that constitute an intolerable violation of the principle of the separation of church and state?

  2. If the state denies legal authority to faith-based tribunals, doesn't that violate the principle of freedom of religion?

  3. If the above two principles are in direct conflict in this situation, which principle should yield and which should prevail?
It is precisely in situations like this, where two core values come into conflict with one another, that cases make their way through the court system to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Take back the night

update, October 21, 2005:  An arrest has been made in the Ardeth Wood murder.

There are three stories in today's Ottawa Citizen. Read about the arrest here; a hair-raising account from a woman who knew the suspect here; and Randall Denley's criticism of Ottawa Police here.

Very sad news here in Ottawa this week. The body of 18-year-old Jennifer Teague has been found not far from her home in Barrhaven (a suburb of Ottawa).

Jennifer Teague

Miss Teague disappeared in the small hours of the morning, Thursday Sept. 8, on her way home from work at a local Wendy's. Part way home, she stopped to chat with friends. (One can only imagine how they feel, thinking back to that conversation — just idle chit-chat on a night like any other.) The cause of death has not yet been determined but it's clear that Miss Teague was murdered.

We don't have much trouble of this sort in Ottawa, but no community is guaranteed to be safe — not even small towns. The terrible thing is, this is the second such incident in Ottawa.

Ardeth Wood

Just over two years ago, 27-year-old Ardeth Wood disappeared in another part of Ottawa and was later found murdered. The police have made zero progress in tracking down her murderer.

Obviously people wonder if Teague's murder is connected to Wood's murder, but police haven't reached that conclusion yet. More details are available in today's Globe and Mail.

I'm sad for Miss Teague's family, sad for the young women of Ottawa, sad to live in a world where beauty and horror are blended together as if this is the way it's meant to be.

I'm lucky to live in a community where incidents like this are occasional and shocking. But no one in Ottawa feels lucky today.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

143 consecutive marathons

Stop any Canadian at random and they will probably be able to tell you this man's name:

This is a photo of Terry Fox, who ran a marathon a day for 143 consecutive days, regardless of the weather conditions. The goal:  to raise money for cancer, which had resulted in the amputation of Fox's right leg.

That's right:  Fox ran 143 consecutive marathons on one real leg and one artificial leg.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Fox's astounding achievement. The annual Terry Fox run took place today; hence the timing of this post.

These are the facts, in brief:
  • March 9, 1977 — Fox, then eighteen years old, goes to a doctor complaining of a pain in his right knee. Tests reveal that he has osteogenic sarcoma, a rare bone cancer. Within days, his leg is amputated six inches above the knee.

  • April 1977 — He begins sixteen months of chemotherapy treatment.

  • February 1979 — He starts training for his Marathon of Hope, a cross-Canada run to raise money for cancer research. He runs over 5,000 kilometres (3,107 miles) in training.

  • April 12, 1980 — St John's, Newfoundland:  He dips his artificial leg into the Atlantic Ocean and begins his journey. His goal is to average 26 miles — a marathon — each day.

  • Initially, Canadians aren't paying much attention. But inexorably, as the weeks pass and Fox continues to grind out the miles, attention begins to grow.

  • September 1, 1980 — He is forced to stop running outside of Thunder Bay, Ontario; his primary cancer has spread to his lungs. He has been running for 143 days and covered 3,339 miles. (An average of 23.35 miles per day.)

  • September 9, 1980 — The CTV network organizes a telethon, which lasts five hours and raises $10 million. Fox watches the event from his hospital room but falls asleep before the end, exhausted from his cancer treatment.

  • February 1, 1981 — Terry's dream of raising $1 from every Canadian is realized. The national population reaches 24.1 million; the Terry Fox Marathon of Hope fund totals $24.17 million.

  • June 28, 1981 — Fox dies at Royal Columbian Hospital – one month short of his 23rd birthday. Tributes pour in from around the world.

  • September 13, 1981 - The first Terry Fox Run is held at more than 760 sites in Canada and around the world. The event attracts 300,000 participants and raises $3.5 million for cancer research.

  • June 30, 1999 - Terry Fox is voted Canada's Greatest Hero in a national survey.

  • Terry Fox runs have taken place annually. To date, over $360 million has been raised for cancer research.
The Globe and Mail ran a front-page article on Fox on Friday, and I found this comment particularly interesting:
The one thing that Doug Alward has never understood about his best friend is how he did it. Terry Fox was, in Mr. Alward's opinion, a terrible athlete.

He couldn't play, but wouldn't quit, and coaches eventually let him play because of this. He was on the junior varsity basketball team at Simon Fraser [University] when he lost his right leg to cancer, but still he refused to quit, taking up running as soon as he could and claiming he would run across the country to raise money for cancer research.
Terry Fox stubbornly persisted toward the goal he had set for himself, day after day, mile after mile, marathon after marathon.

His example persists to this day, and the cause he set in motion continues onward.

Bravo, Terry! Sometimes, an individual makes a difference.

[For a poignant insight into this year's Terry Fox run, check out Courage in small packages on Mary P.'s blog.]

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Favourite kids' jokes

While we're on the subject of kids (see previous post, Prize-winning essay) …

For some reason, I woke up thinking about two jokes that were favourites of mine when I was a kid.

Kids' joke #1:
Look at that bunch of cows.
Not bunch — herd.
Heard what?
Herd of cows.
Of course I've heard of cows.
Not "heard of cows"; a cow herd.
What do I care if a cow heard? I didn't say anything I shouldn't have!
(I see someone has turned this first joke into an Amelia Bedelia routine. Amelia Bedelia wasn't around when I was a kid, but I'm sure I would have loved her. She's always getting words mixed up like that.)

Kids' joke #2:

Q. What's worse than flying low?
A. When your pilot's hanging out.

The remarkable thing is, I have a terrible memory for jokes; but all these years later, I still remember those two from my childhood.

Tell me, what are your favourite kids' jokes?

The server sez to me, "That'll be five dollars, please." Then I sez to the server, "Just put it on my bill." bwah-ha-ha-ha-ha!

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Prize-winning essay

Last Sunday (September 11) was Grandparents' Day. A local senior's residence held a contest to celebrate the occasion. My daughter Naomi, age 12, submitted an essay about my parents' cottage.

the grandparents, at the cottage,
with the whole brood

Naomi won 3rd prize out of 198 entries, which is a fine performance! She read the essay aloud to the seniors on Grandparents' Day, and they presented her with an iPod shuffle as her prize.

Here is the essay in its entirety; I've added some old photos from the cottage.

Fishing in the a.m.

I would always wake, feeling excited. Today was the day. I would dress quickly and would head for the main cottage. I would run to the kitchen to pack my lunch. that day it was only me. No siblings. Just me and my grandparents.

That's the way it was at my cottage. Certain mornings my grandparents would take us kids on early morning fishing trips.

Isaac (who is now ten), clearly pleased with his first fish

I always loved going with them, alone. I'd never keep the fish I caught, because it seemed so cruel. I could see the worriedness in their eyes, as they painfully began to slip into an eternal slumber. No, I would never go for the fish. I would go for something more dear to me than that. I'd go to spend time with the ones I love. My family.

Grandpa at the helm

Early morning fishing trips are by far one of my fondest memories at the cottage. But there are so many more.

We would always have so much fun at the cottage. It was right beside a lake, in which we would swim, and of course, fish in.

Some days, I would get scared that I'd be bitten by the snapping turtle, and refuse to swim. My grandma would find me something to do. She would teach me how to knit and crochet. Together, we would play chinese marbles and cards.

Benjamin with crayfish:  first kiss

Grandpa would usually be in his workshop, where he built furniture and other odds and ends. My favourite thing my grandpa made was the game crochinole. We would play all the time. My siblings and I would have tournaments, and all day long would be amused. The champion would face grandpa.

Grandma, asked for her secret chili ingredient, just smiles

One of my favourite cottage dinners was grandma's chili. It is heavenly. Grandma always puts the perfect amount of ingredients into it, and the result is the perfect chili.

When we would go to the cottage in early July, we would go berry picking. There were blackberries and they always tasted delicious.

Frog catching was another big hit there. All sorts of frogs lived around there. My favourite to catch were bullfrogs. Those bullfrogs were huge! We would wade deep into the swamp to catch them, sometimes completely falling in.

Beth with bullfrog

But good things can't last forever. One day, about three years ago, my grandma's health conditions worsened, and they decided to sell the cottage. On my last visit, we all swam to a small island just out of the bay and back.

When I go to my grandparents', we rarely talk about the cottage because it makes us all teary, so it's almost as if it never existed. But I know, in my heart, there will always be a very special place for my cottage.

Lydia and Isaac:  traditional last-night-at-the-cottage activity

Q in his happy place

award-winning author relaxes, at the cottage, with a good book

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Moral authority

As a consequence of my previous post on Phan Thi Kim Phuc, I have been thinking about moral authority. Lots of people claim to have it; arguably, some do and some don't. So what is moral authority, and where does it come from?

Moral authority (or suasion) is like the old advertisement:  "When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen." It is the power to influence public opinion without the use of force. The phrase thus contains an implicit contrast with political or legal authority, which are coercive.

Phan Thi Kim Phuc does not hold public office; she cannot enact legislation or arrest anyone. Nonetheless, people heed her when she speaks. She has moral authority.

But poor Tom Cruise — he is a mere pretender to moral authority. On the Today Show, Cruise asserted that psychiatry is a pseudo-science and he insisted that the correct treatment for postpartum depression is vitamins and exercise.

How many sufferers cancelled their Paxil prescriptions? Not many, I hope!

But let's move on to a trickier example:  Cindy Sheehan. Her son, Casey, was an American soldier until he was killed in Iraq. Sheehan is now campaigning against the war in Iraq and against the Bush administration:
Am I emotional? Yes, my first born was murdered. Am I angry? Yes, he was killed for lies and for a PNAC [Project for the New American Century] Neo-Con agenda to benefit Israel. My son joined the army to protect America, not Israel. Am I stupid? No, I know full well that my son, my family, this nation and this world were betrayed by George Bush who was influenced by the neo-con PNAC agendas after 9/11. We were told that we were attacked on 9/11 because the terrorists hate our freedoms and democracy … not for the real reason, because the Arab Muslims who attacked us hate our middle-eastern foreign policy.

(source:  Christopher Hitchens, Slate)
People who oppose the war in Iraq are pleased with Sheehan's intervention; arguably, she lends moral authority to their cause. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times said as much:  "The moral authority of parents who bury children killed in Iraq is absolute."

I must say, it's a strange statement. There are other parents of children killed in Iraq who continue to support the war. What happens when two absolute authorities come into direct conflict? Something has to give, either the immovable object or the irresistable force.

Mr. Hitchens, on the other hand, denies that Cindy Sheehan has any more moral authority than anyone else:  "Suppose I had lost a child in this war. Would any of my critics say that this gave me any extra authority? I certainly would not ask or expect them to do so."

But I reject Hitchens' position, too. Here's my analysis. Cindy Sheehan is spouting nonsense when she blames the Iraq war on Israel. Her son's death does not make her opinion on that subject any more credible. On the other hand, she is convinced that her son died in an ignoble cause — that he died for a mistake — which has exacerbated the pain of losing him. Surely she is entitled to tell us whether or not, in her opinion, her son's death was warranted.

Genuine suffering can impart a degree of moral authority. Cindy Sheehan, like Phan Thi Kim Phuc, has suffered. That suffering gives a certain moral authority to her words that Tom Cruise, for example, lacks. (Regrettably, Sheehan is not using her moral authority very responsibly when it comes to her statements about Israel.)

Let me introduce one more example to complicate matters still further:  John Lennon. Like Tom Cruise and other Hollywood stars, John Lennon exploited his celebrity to speak to political issues. His conduct is still controversial. Some people dismiss him as derisively as they dismiss Cruise.

I disagree. I think Lennon, with Yoko Ono, found a way to legitimately influence popular opinion. Their campaigns were clever and fun. For example:
  • turning their honeymoon into a bed-in for peace;
  • sending acorns to world leaders and asking them to plant a tree for peace;
  • placing "War is Over if you want it" billboards in many nations.
I think this was a legitimate campaign:  not because Lennon's opinion is innately authoritative, but because it was genuinely artistic in expression. Artists have always functioned as prophets. They are subversives; they use their art to challenge conventional thinking and question the policies of those in power.

So now we have four examples to consider. Let's list them in order. #1 possesses the most moral authority; #4, the least:
  1. Phan Thi Kim Phuc
  2. Cindy Sheehan
  3. John Lennon
  4. Tom Cruise
You're just waiting to tear into my list, I hope! Of the above individuals, who has more moral authority, and who has less?

And why? Where does moral authority come from, in your view?

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The "Girl in the picture" is named to the Order of Ontario

You have probably seen this heart-wrenching photograph before. It has been described as a photo that changed the world:

The year was 1972. The nine-year-old girl in the center of the frame is Phan Thi Kim Phuc. The place was Vietnam, and the black smoke in the background was the aftermath of a napalm bombing.

Napalm was an American weapon, but this particular bombing was an accident. A South Vietnamese aircraft accidentally dropped its payload on one of its own villages (Trang Bang). The South Vietnamese soldiers in the photo look indifferent to the children's misery, but presumably it was not so.

The photo was taken by Nick Ut, an Associated Press photographer. After taking the photo, Mr. Ut hurried Kim to the hospital. (Contrary to the popular image of press photographers as people who don't lift a finger to help the subjects of their photos.)

The photograph made Kim an international figure who symbolized everything that was wrong with war in general, and the Vietnam war in particular.

Where is Kim now? She lives in Ajax (near Toronto). The Globe and Mail reports that Kim has just been named to the Order of Ontario:
The Ontario government says she became a famous symbol of the Vietnam war by accident, but has since become a symbol of peace "by choice, determination and hard work."
Kim was very badly burned:  she spent fourteen months recovering in a hospital in Saigon. She continued to live in Vietnam, where a German photojournalist tracked her down ten years after the famous photo was taken.

The Vietnamese government saw this as a golden opportunity for a propaganda campaign. In 1984-85 they took Kim on a highly-orchestrated, whirlwind tour of Hanoi, Germany, and the Soviet Union. Occasional publicity appearances continued thereafter until Kim defected to Canada in 1992. (Source:  Far Eastern Economic Review)

Today, Kim is married with two children. She is a Christian who lives out the principles of her faith:
In a commemorative ceremony to the Vietnam War she publicly pardoned the person who had launched the napalm bombing in her village in Vietman. Ever since, she has dedicated her life to promoting peace, and to this end she founded the "Kim Phuc Phan Thi Foundation" ( This foundation helps children who are victims of war everywhere by providing medical and psychological help to surmount their traumatic experiences.
(Source for the above text and the two photos:

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Two FEMA links

I want to call your attention to two of the blogs I regularly read. Both have a follow-up story on the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which must share a considerable part of the blame for the botched rescue efforts in New Orleans. Each blog has a distinctive angle.

B2 at Toner Mishap summarizes a Time article. Allegedly, Michael Brown falsified his resume to obtain the job as head of FEMA.

The implicit question is, does this let President Bush off the hook for making the appointment, which has had such disastrous consequences? Or is it still relevant that Michael Brown is a buddy of a buddy of GWB? (Brown attended college with Joseph Allbaugh, who preceded him as the head of FEMA, and who was a close political confidant of GWB.)

Meanwhile, Aaron passes along this little tidbit of information. FEMA has gathered 1,400 fire fighters to assist them with their workload. Sounds like a good move, right? But, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, they are employing the fire fighters to do public relations work.

Some of the fire fighters didn't know they had been recruited for PR work, and so they quit in disgust. They
peeled off their FEMA-issued shirts and stuffed them in backpacks, saying they refuse to represent the federal agency.

Federal officials are unapologetic. "I would go back and ask the firefighter to revisit his commitment to FEMA, to firefighting and to the citizens of this country," said FEMA spokeswoman Mary Hudak.
Excuse the strong language, but Ms. Hudak's statement is unbe-fucking-lievable. Even if the PR work is legitimate, surely it can be handled by someone who doesn't have the specialized, invaluable training of a firefighter.

President Bush has fired Michael Brown, but perhaps he should consider scrapping the whole agency and starting fresh.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The misunderstood introvert

Time for a change of pace. I have one more subject I'd like to address with respect to Hurricane Katrina, but people may want to take a break and think about something else.

Imagine it's a Friday afternoon at the end of a demanding week. What are you looking forward to doing:
(a) meeting several friends at a trendy pub?; or
(b) retreating to a corner of the house for a quiet read?
According to Carl Jung, there are two kinds of people in the world:  introverts and extroverts (alternative spelling, extraverts). Sometimes I think the divide between these two groups is as great as the divide between men and women. We understand each other's perspectives only dimly and with much effort.

Back on August 22, I published the post, Most overrated virtue. I wrote,
Western society rewards extroverts over introverts virtually every time. People respond to it as a great virtue even if they haven't explicitly thought of it in those terms.

I think introverts have a great deal to contribute to society, though I am not saying that introverts are better than extroverts. As in most areas, I think balance is a healthy ideal … and I think our society is unbalanced in favour of extroverts.
The post didn't provoke much of a reaction until Bill returned from vacation some days later. He responded:
I disagree on extroversion being overrated.

Extroversion allows the extrovert to connect with society as a whole in a much more concrete way. The extrovert might have 100 personal interactions a day and if only 10 percent are quality connections then he/she has connected in a very concrete way to 10 people per day, 3500 people per year, and millions in a life time.

The introvert is lucky if he/she makes 5 special friends in a life time. I have rarely met a lonely extrovert but I know many lonely introverts.
It is my impression that some bad blood is rising to the surface here. Introverts and extroverts simply don't understand one another. As usual, where misunderstanding abounds, each side is guilty of offending the other.

I would like to promote greater harmony between these two alien beings. I can't speak for the extroverts of the world; perhaps one of my readers can take up the challenge and post on The misunderstood extrovert. But I can speak on behalf of introverts and attempt to clear away some misperceptions.

1. Introverted ≠ socially incompetent:

Admittedly, introverts may be clumsy in social situations. An introvert may have trouble initiating a conversation or maintaining it. She may seize up with anxiety or embarrassment and come across as dull or disinterested.

But introverts are not all socially incompetent. Some introverts have learned that you can initiate a conversation with something as simple as a warm smile coupled with direct eye contact. They've learned to stay abreast of current issues, so they'll have something of interest to say at a party. They've learned not to panic when there's a lull in the conversation (because conversations have a natural ebb and flow to them). And they've learned to ask the other person a question about themselves if the lull continues too long and they can't think of anything interesting to say.

In other words, they've developed some adaptive behaviours to compensate for their native uneasiness in a crowd.

Similarly, introverted is not the same thing as shy. I am an introvert, but I am also a reasonably good public speaker. I'm not very good at extemporizing, but if I have adequate time to prepare I am quite capable of engaging people's attention and getting a message across.

My ex-wife is a raging extrovert. But, to my surprise, I discovered there was one social situation where I was more comfortable than she was.

I was the pastor of a church for about four years. It was a small church, and I did my best to turn that into a virtue by emphasizing personal contact with folks. Each Sunday, before the worship service started, I would walk around and greet people where they sat in the pews.

I was perfectly comfortable in that role, but for some reason my ex-wife wasn't. She could have just stayed at my elbow and let me lead, but she found the whole exercise awkward and uncomfortable.

I never did figure out why it was an issue for her, but it was good for my ego. Despite my introversion (and her extroversion), I was more at ease and adept in that social situation than she was.

2. Introverted ≠ distant or aloof:

Here I want to call your attention to the intimacy paradox. (As far as I know, I have just coined the expression.)

Even Mary P. finds this subject confusing. I tell her that I have a deep need for human contact, and she just shoots me that look. You know the look I mean; the same look an entomologist might use to study an unfamiliar insect. Behind the clinical expression, she's calculating how to respond:  It can be dangerous to contradict delusional people. Perhaps it would be safer to play along with Q and pretend that he's making sense.

It surprises me that the intimacy paradox surprises Mary P. It is, in fact, the foundation of our relationship. Mary P. and I both have an extraordinary need for intimacy. We spend many hours deep in conversation. And I do not exaggerate when I say that those conversations are life to me.

This is not typical of all introverts, I admit. Some people are completely self-contained; they have no need of human companionship. (I'll return to this observation and offer another comment on it below.)

But I think it is more typical for introverts to have an inner drive toward intimacy. Introverts are not distant or aloof. They need fewer relationships than extroverts, but they desire a profound degree of intimacy in the relationships they do form.

Bill estimates that he has 100 personal interactions per day, and 10 of those are quality interactions. Mary P. responded:
Introverts and extroverts define "quality" quite differently. Something you, as an extrovert would define as a quality interaction, I would see as just beginning to show the potential for quality.

As an introvert, I'd say that if you were having as many as 100 interactions in a day, there would simply not be the time for any of them to be "quality". You would see it otherwise, because your definition of the word differs from mine.
And this is the critical point. Who defines the quality of a friendship? Obviously, the parties to that friendship.

Intimacy is not a prerequisite of a "quality" friendship; not the way that Bill defines "quality". And he should define his friendships in the way that best suits him.

The intimacy paradox is, introverts require more intimacy than extroverts. If I had ten "quality" friendships at the same time, I'd see it as an embarrassment of riches. And I probably couldn't maintain them all. I'd find it too demanding; it would be more than I could give of myself.

3. The defining characteristic of an introvert:

According to Myers-Briggs, introverts direct their energy to the inner world of thoughts and emotions and derive energy back from that inner world of thoughts and emotions. Extroverts, on the other hand, direct their energy to the outer world of people and things and receive energy back from that source.

I would emphasize the second half of the definition and ask, Where do you get your energy from? In my view, this is the best way to distinguish an introvert from an extrovert.

This, too, was a lesson I learned in my first marriage. My ex-wife gained energy in proportion to the social demands we were facing. At Christmas time, when we faced multiple demands from church, family, and friends, she was in her glory. But I found it exhausting. I just wanted to crawl into a hole somewhere til Christmas was over.

Not an ideal quality in a pastor, by the way.

I get energy from turning inward. Long before I encountered Myers-Briggs, I said that I needed to be "alone in my own head".

This is not to say that I don't enjoy socializing. We live on a very social street, and I love it. I think it's great that people sit on their front porches and holler to one another across the street, or invite each other over for a drink. I gain a certain amount of energy from that dynamic … but mostly vicariously. I only participate to a limited extent.

I like to think that I am friendly, but it's probably more accurate to say that I am not unfriendly. I socialize in short bursts; then I feel a need to retreat.

Regrettably, even though I enjoy socializing, I don't find it reenergizing:  I find it taxing. I sincerely wish it wasn't so, but it's just the way I'm "wired". If I don't spend a certain amount of time alone in my own head I begin to get depressed.

There is one exception to the general rule:  my relationship with Mary P. I find it reenergizing to spend time with her, exploring "the inner world of thoughts and emotions" jointly.

And this brings me back to the observation I made earlier, that some people are completely self-contained. I think there are two kinds of introvert:  those who are content to explore the inner world of thoughts and emotions solo, and those who want to share that voyage of discovery with someone else.

I'm in the latter camp. A quality friendship, for me, is a relationship where we can explore the inner world of thoughts and emotions jointly.


Let's return to the question I asked at the beginning of this post. Imagine it's a Friday afternoon at the end of a demanding week. What are you looking forward to doing:
(a) meeting several friends at a trendy pub?; or
(b) retreating to a corner of the house for a quiet read?
If you answered (a), you're an extrovert. When you're exhausted, you want to socialize in order to reenergize.

If you answered (b), you're an introvert. When you're exhausted, you want to turn inward to your thoughts and emotions.

But introverted is not equivalent to socially incompetent or shy; nor is it equivalent to distant or aloof. On the contrary, introverts can be socially adept, good public speakers, and highly interested in intimacy.

The key distinction is the one I've emphasized:  when you're exhausted, how do you reenergize?

I'll be watching for someone to respond with a corresponding post, The misunderstood extrovert.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Guest blogger: 49er proportions the blame between governments

Introduction by Q:

My previous post was an exercise in imagining how different things might have been in the New Orleans Convention Center if government had responded better. In writing that post, I realized the challenge was entirely logistical. As far as I can tell (admittedly I'm no expert) the USA didn't lack anything that was necessary to a rescue mission except organizational savvy.

My impression was confirmed by an article in the Globe and Mail this week. A Canadian multi-millionaire, Frank Stronach, decided he was going to take personal responsibility for saving 300-400 of Hurricane Katrina's victims. Here's the part of the story that got me:
Last Thursday, Mr. Stronach decided he could no longer wait for slow governments and large organizations to act on the tragedy unfolding along the Gulf Coast. He knew from his own life experience what it was like to be desperately poor and hungry — "Those things are burned right into the soul" — but could only imagine the danger that the survivors were facing. …

Mr. Stronach immediately dispatched his assistant, Dennis Mills, to Florida.

"I got this call from Frank," says Mr. Mills, who was still in Palm Beach yesterday afternoon, "and he says 'This is crazy! Let's go!' …

Mr. Mills is an organizational legend whose triumphs include helping to bring Pope John Paul II to Canada for World Youth Day and the Rolling Stones to Toronto for the successful SARS relief concert.

Mr. Mills immediately began working with FEMA and the Red Cross to cut through the red tape and line up several hundred candidates for the airlift. The first evacuees landed in Montgomery, Ala., where buses picked them up.

"These people were traumatized," Mr. Mills says. "The first planeload of 126 was basically people they'd fished out of the bayou that morning.
It was as simple as that, I'm tempted to say. All you need is a good organizer and it can be done, and done quickly.

That's my long-winded introduction to a guest blog from 49erdweet. He has researched government relief efforts, and assigned a grade to each order of government.

49er brings some relevant experience to the task. He explains that he had many years of fleet and system planning experience, spent several years on the board of an outstanding ambulance (and first responder) service, spent years as a California trained county peace officer and supervisor, and volunteers each year to oversee the public and volunteer transportation segments of at least two internationally known public events.

But feel free to disagree, and let him know about it. No one's opinion is sacrosanct at Simply Put, including mine; so give 49er an earful with my blessing!

Full disclosure: I have taken the liberty of editing 49er's work a little, without in any way censoring his views. I wanted to focus on the several orders of government; 49er addresses some other parties as well, at Minding the Gap. What follows is entirely 49er's, though he speaks of himself in the third person.

NOTE: None of what follows will be supported by links or references. Mainly because most of it has been freely available to everyone wishing to look.

After bouncing around between the net and the tube, including some of the side stories that have yet to receive wide spread recognition, the 49er has come up with the following weighted governance grades IN HIS OPINION for the period beginning three days before Katrina blew through Florida, until midnight New Orleans local time yesterday, 9/5/2005:

New Orleans governance: C minus
Orleans Parish governance: D minus
Louisiana governance: F
Federal Emergency Management Agency: D minus
GW Bush: C minus
neighboring states: A
other national statesmen: D minus

New Orleans government: C minus
The city of New Orleans (NOLA) receives good marks for forcefully telling everybody to leave town ahead of time, and later for warning those going to the superdome to take food, water and blankets because they would be there on their own for several days and it would be "rough".

They receive bad marks for earlier in time allowing the installation of a police radio system that could fail so completely during the foreseeable disaster they've since suffered. Whoever spec'ed out and okayed that system should be investigated criminally for neglect of duty. An emergency response force is useless if they can't communicate on multiple levels. Many reports suggest the only communications left to them were primitive line-of-sight single-frequency "tach" channels. Cops outgrew those in the 1940s.

They receive a failing mark for saving their buses but not their citizens. Reports say during planning meetings when they came to the question of how to help evacuate the poor, the answer was silence. Effective leadership would have years earlier directed a team of action people to resolve that dilemma. No evidence has yet surfaced that this was attempted. (And, yes, besides reading of the city buses that were driven to safety, 49er saw the photo of the school bus yard containing over 300 partially flooded school buses).

The city receives good marks for 'getting with it' once the scope of the flood was finally understood. When your power is out and you are operating on batteries, and your emergency services people can't talk and report back at will because their communications are down, leaders are blinded and naturally hesitant. They recovered from that problem fairly rapidly, apparently, so he gave them the benefit of the doubt.

NOLA also receives good marks for making a controversial decision to oppose anarchy by forsaking some safety and recovery efforts, and directing increased enforcement resources back against looting, crime, etc. The humanitarian drama steals our emotions, but anarchy is extremely insidious and once it had been allowed to gain a foothold the human cost could easily have been worse and longer lasting than from the flood.

And they receive good marks for yesterday realizing their emergency responders were wearing out and badly needed personal and recreational time away from the disaster zone. Sending them to Atlanta and Lost Wages was a good idea. Their local knowledge will be vitally needed as the body recovery program begins in earnest, and when they return they should have clearer eyes and strengthened hearts.

Orleans Parish governance: D minus
Orleans Parish seems to be almost completely composed of the downtown portion of the Crescent City. 49er has found little to clarify its relationship with NOLA city governance. It may be that some city officials wear two hats, similar to the city and county of San Francisco, but he cannot confirm that at this hour.

Never the less, the parish portion of the job seems extremely poorly done. For a parish that lived for decades under the threat of total disaster if a hurricane of a certain size descended upon its neighborhood, disaster planning was terribly lackluster and incomplete. As the interim level between city and state, it should have been jumping the gun to get things going days before Katrina hit, and then once again when the levies were breached. To this day he can find no record of them responding. Curiously, 49er can find response activity records for neighboring St. Bernard, Jefferson, and Plaquemines parishes, just not Orleans.

Louisiana governance: F
State governance did a good job of facilitating the original motorized evacuation a couple of days before Katrina's second landfall. That went by plan and was pretty smooth. Personal friends that were in it said it was slow at first, but they reached Houston safely in well less than a day, and were pleased with the support they received.

Louisiana (LA) state authorities were given access to resources and "federal disaster area" legal status a full day ahead of time by the feds, but seemed to "sit on it", rather than take pre-cautionary actions. Why this failure to act occurred will be interesting to determine. It is probably the worst and most critical failure noted. A state can always step in and override a parish or city, but the feds cannot override a state without approval from congress.

The worst failure of the state, in 49er's opinion, is for years accepting the limited safety of a defective levy system that was too low and too old. (A new type of system — originating in LA — for reinforcing their bases with permeable clay and building up levies was only partially used in and around the mighty Mississip, before it was imported to other river cities such as Sacramento and St Louis, etc.) If a levy is too low, it is TOO LOW. If it is too old, it is TOO OLD. The state of Louisiana failed miserably to make that dangerous situation a matter of the national conscience. That was their collective duty. They blew it.

Federal Emergency Management Agency: D minus
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is too full of bureaucrats (sorry, Q). There is a place for them, but that number should make up less than 1/5th of the staff. Instead, they seem to run it. And the way they run it is about three decades behind the times. Two examples. First, officials in St. Bernard Parish, east by southeast and seaward from New Orleans, as of midnight last night had still to hear a from anybody at FEMA even though they had been leaving phone messages at FEMA headquarters for five days.

Second, for any flood victim to apply for aid – as of 5 PM yesterday – required them to phone or email for a packet, WHICH WOULD BE MAILED to the claimant's address for them to complete and mail back. So now to qualify for disaster aid, a citizen must not be in so much of a disaster as to lose either phone or email service, and/or a bona fide mailing address. Ridiculous. FEMA needs a good flushing of its top-level administrators. They don't need to just administrate "smarter" (the old saw), but they need to administrate "realer", to coin a phrase.

GW Bush: C minus
Interesting comment last night on Fox from Newt Gingrich, when asked why the delay in response from GWB. His reply, "He was getting too much conflicting information". Since 49er and others believe that has been true for two or three years, it is easy for them to accept. If he learns otherwise, he reserves the right to alter his grade.

neighboring states: A
Texas, Mississippi, Alabama all came through this with their states performing like champs — even though vast areas of the last two had been wiped out. Was the flooding the only difference? Maybe, maybe not.

other national statesmen: D minus
Life on the Bayou and Gulf Coast always brings out vile and pesky critters that can prove to be very bothersome. They are considered nuisances. Some of the nuisances do not have wings or feelers, but instead ride around in limos and hang out in the halls of congress. Those critters are now coming out in force hoping to put a political spin on anything done in the name of humanity. If we only hadn't rid ourselves of the protection afforded by DDT, maybe they wouldn't be so pesky.

(Cross-posted by 49er on Minding The Gap.)

Monday, September 05, 2005

Inside the New Orleans Convention Centre: how different it might have been

This fictional, alternative account of events was inspired by Mary P.'s persistent question:   Why did government officials evacuate thousands of people to the Convention Center, but not arrange a supply of water and other basic necessities for them?

Tuesday, August 30
10:00 p.m.

Outside the perimeter of the Convention Center, people have reverted to a Hobbesian state of nature. Intermittent gunfire is heard in the distance. Latecomers to the Center tell horror stories of looting, violence, and anarchy.

But here, inside the Convention Center, conditions are tolerable. The latecomers are profoundly grateful to join us in this safe place.

Conditions are just tolerable; no better than that. For example, the toilets are overflowing and the smell of human excrement is thick enough to taste.

After all, there is no running water here. The only solution is to dig latrines, but we won't be here long enough to warrant it.

There are thousands of people here, and they are grateful to government officials for providing a way of escape. For various reasons, they were unable to leave the city. And if they had remained in their homes, many would have died there.

The latecomers tell horror stories about this, too. Without exception, they have witnessed bodies floating in flooded streets.

But we were safely sheltered from the storm inside the Convention Center. And now our basic needs are being met.

Like many of you, I am suspicious of big government. Keep taxes down; let individuals keep what they earn and they will look after themselves — that has always been my belief. But today I see it differently.

To organize this many displaced people is quite a feat. All three orders of government — federal, state, and municipal — have worked together to bring about this miracle.

Thank God for modern technology. Meterologists saw this storm developing over the ocean days before it made landfall. That gave government enough time to get organized:   to order people to evacuate the city, to open up the Convention Center and the Superbowl as safe havens for those who could not travel, to bring in medical personnel, other staff, and limited stores of water and food.

The federal government supplied several hundred members of the National Guard to maintain order. Soldiers were stationed at each of the entrances when we arrived on Sunday.

I resented it when they frisked me, looking for a gun. But when I hear the gunfire in the streets of New Orleans, I think maybe it wasn't such a bad idea. The message was clear:   law and order are still in effect here.

There are two medical stations, each with a team of a dozen personnel. Many of the people here are elderly and in poor health, which is why they were unable to leave the city. And many of the latecomers have injuries that require medical attention.

Generators provide a limited amount of electrical power to refrigerate medications (insulin, for example) and other perishable supplies.

As soon as people began to arrive, administrators set up their desks outside each of the washrooms. When we went to use the facilities, they took down our names and asked if we had any medical issues they needed to be aware of. Then they provided us with a card to show that we had already been registered.

The Center has been divided into sectors, alphabetically. If people need to search for loved ones, they know which sector to look in.

The able-bodied among us have been organized into teams of volunteers. Our main task is to remove garbage to a designated area outside. By the end of the day yesterday, when the storm finally abated, garbage was already beginning to pile up. Several hours of steady work today has effected a noticable improvement.

The heat is stifling, and everyone is in need of a shower and a change of clothes. And there isn't enough food to satisfy us. They trucked in a supply of army rations, which don't need to be refrigerated or cooked. We've been provided with two meals a day, which means we're hungry most of the time. But we can tough it out as long as there's adequate water.

The key consideration is that we aren't left here too long. Now that it's clear we can't go home again, they've begun to evacuate us. The medical teams identified the people most at risk, and they were evacuated just before nightfall today.

Tomorrow, a team of Greyhound buses will arrive. (The President arranged for ten per cent of the fleet to be at his disposal.) Everyone is eager to get out of here:   it's a good thing the National Guard is present to ensure that people don't stampede when the buses arrive.

Of course, we don't know where we'll be going. That's preying on everyone's minds. We know we won't be returning to our homes in New Orleans any time soon. But we don't have jobs and homes anywhere else, so our future is a complete blank.

One day at a time. At least we know we don't have to bear the loss and uncertainty alone:   the government and the citizens of this great country are rallying to our aid.