ramblings of an immigrant son

Archive for the ‘Activism’ Category

Are We Any Closer to a Prejudice-Free World?

In Activism, Culture, Current Events, Epistemology, Ethics, History, Human Rights, Lifestyle, Literature, Opinions, Perspectives, Philosophy, Politics on July 6, 2015 at 8:23 am

There were a number of converging factors that provoked me to write about this question. Being an avid reader of other’s opinions, sometimes I am prone to feel more optimism or more pessimism where the notion of “equality” is concern. For instance, I was uplifted by recent findings showing that peaceful protests are becoming an increasingly effective strategy to address social injustices. However, some of my hopefulness dissipated when I learned more about the culture of violence that persist in Baltimore. Current events have also been a subject of mix interpretation. While the legalization of gay marriage in Ireland and the United States seem to be steps forward, the tragedy in Charleston and unambiguous sexist comments made by a Nobel peace prize winning scientist have represented steps backwards.

Ultimately though, it was probably novels and films that broke the camel’s back. Although I am very interested in the inequality faced by women, aboriginal peoples, and immigrants, I have become especially curious about African American experiences in North America in recent years. Books like the “Autobiography of Malcolm X,” the Easy Rawlin mystery series, “In the Heat in the Night,” and the “Book of Negroes” have powerfully influenced the way I simultaneously feel empowered, outraged, rejoiced, and embittered by the progress (or lack of) in the advancement of human rights and elimination of racism. Films like “Twelve Years of Slavery” and “Selma” have only made those mixed feelings more poignant. After seeing these movies, it is understandably hard not to be bothered by the kind of suffering people have faced because of who they are and who they are not. Admittedly, I could not help but sympathize with the author of the article “Why I Wouldn’t See 12 Years a Slave with a White Person”, and personally felt discomfort watching the film for the first time with anyone else except a like minded sibling.

It may seem as if I have missed an obvious source of motivation: my own experiences with racism as a non-white person. It is easy to assume that all people of colour are constantly aware of the prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination that they are personally exposed to, regardless of its subtlety. However, in my opinion, it is not uncommon for children of immigrants to try to treat most forms of racism like background noise and initially look for other reasons for its presence when involuntarily confronted by it. After all, there is nothing flattering (or healthy) about being so willing to accept the possibility that you are being perceived as physically, intellectually, sexually, and/or professionally inferior because of a background you have absolutely no control over. I usually require a great deal of reflection and verification from others to acknowledge that I have been the victim of racism for whatever reason. To clarify then, it is usually easier for me to recognize how racism affects the lives of others than it is for me to comprehend how it shapes my own life.

When it comes to civil rights, there are good grounds to feel cautiously optimistic that things are gradually getting better. From the second half of the previous century, the constant outcry for the legalization of human rights and demand for political representation have leveled the playing field in some of the most unjust societies in the world. From Alabama to Soweto, institutionalized racism crumbled against the might of non-violent civil disobedience movements that have redefined the way we talk about concepts like “democracy,” “civic participation,” “protest,” and “equality.” Beyond developed countries, this momentum continues to embolden numerous ordinary people to denounce political oppression, misogyny, and post-colonial practices in all of their many disguises around the world. Admittedly, these movements haven’t always led to positive outcomes in the short run as seen in the immediate aftermath of China’s Tienanmen Square Protests and in Iran’s more recent Green Movement. Nevertheless, in the long run, the bloody suppression of these peaceful movements have done more to further their agendas than weaken them, forcing political elites to reevaluate what they can or cannot get away with imposing on a given society.

Things get more complex when it comes to seeking out radical changes on the social, economic, and cultural level. It cannot yet be said that ethnocentrism and sexism are problems that belong to the past in North America, let alone the rest of the world. In Canada and the United States, the people who tend to be the most marginalized remain visible minorities that have historically felt the greatest brunt of the colonial policies and practices of these countries. For example, the long term impact of government-backed residential schools in Canada have left communities across the country vulnerable to social turmoil, gang violence, and cyclical poverty. Although there have been efforts to celebrate aboriginal cultures and traditions as being part of their national heritage, aboriginal writer Thomas King gets it spot on when he points out that the primary way Washington and Ottawa address the issues and plights of aboriginal peoples is by simply choosing to ignore them. Tragically, the apathy of the “perfect stranger” has not only gained official acceptance, but has become the widely accepted paradigm in which most non-aboriginal peoples prefer to understand their unsettling relationship with aboriginal peoples. It has been a significant factor behind the slowness of the Canadian public to genuinely pay attention to the deterioration of water quality in the Chipewyan area as well as the alarmingly disproportionate number of missing aboriginal women throughout the country.

Mainstream culture also does not relieve the suspicion that more needs to be done where the status quo is concerned. Women in both of these countries are still paid less than their male counterparts and are all too often underrepresented in governments, businesses, and the media. One only needs to see the posters of upcoming films in a local cinema to get a fairly accurate idea of who is still getting the most screen time and who is getting the least. In all fairness, television shows and movies have increasingly becoming more representative, with a diversity of characters, themes, perspectives, and plots becoming accessible to wider audiences. Nonetheless, these initiatives are often met with intense criticism and resistance as evident in the visceral reaction of comic book fans to a non-white actor being chosen to play a major character in an upcoming film. Although a feminine and non-white presence can be found among individuals who for better (or worse) become celebrated icons in North America, the ones that get the most attention tend to be masculine- and you guessed it- Caucasian. Even perceptions of beauty remain heavily influenced by a widely accepted preference for physical attributes found mainly in people of European descent. As explored in the documentary “Colour of Beauty”, this ascetic pervades the fashion industry to such an extent that very few non-whites models, as oppose to their white counterparts, have a real chance to succeed professionally.

Civil rights leaders in the twentieth century grappled with whether legal and political gains would ever transition into economic, social, and cultural equality. While some like Martin Luther King Jr. insisted a harmony would gradually be realized, others such as Malcolm X expressed doubts about whether much beyond the superficial would really change. In the twenty-first century, it is quite easy to find ample evidence on whether the glass is half full or half empty when thinking about how close we really are to a prejudice-free world. I also suspect that answers will vary depending on backgrounds, circumstances, locations, and experiences of individuals or groups. So where does this simple-but-difficult-to-answer question leave us? Being such a challenge to answer, is it even worthwhile to pose the question at all? Well, in my opinion, maybe coming up with a definitive answer is not the point of asking the question. Rather, perhaps the purpose of stating the question is to keep alive a discourse that is as relevant now as ever. After all, as Martin Luther King Jr. warned in his famous speech: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”. Certainly, by asking this question we inevitably find controversy, uncertainty, and a cocktail of facts that prevents the production of a neatly package response that we can all agree upon. In contrast, by refusing to raise the question at all, we lose an opportunity to explore possibilities of an improved way of being and run the risk of not only stagnating in our own ignorance, but doing so at the expense of fellow human beings. Therefore, if we really aspire to be the benefactors of a better world , then perhaps it is a good idea to keep bringing up tough questions. Especially one that directly relates to the lives of so many of us.

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Believers and Opportunists: A Personal Conundrum

In Activism, Ethics, Health, Huxley, Literature, morality, Opinions, Philosophy, Pop Culture, society, Spirituality on February 11, 2013 at 4:17 am

Are you a vegetarian and find yourself in awkward situations where for instance your meat loving friends, who organized a barbeque night, mix the tofu dogs with the beef patties? Are you an anti-establishment Left-a-Saurus that reads Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, and Slavoj Žižek by day, but hits that generic Irish-looking pub by night; you know, the one with the overpriced big-brand beers, forever glowing big-screens, and over-worked-under-paid staff? Are you among the music aristocracy (you know who you are), that despite claiming to have a taste in music that is nothing less than critically-acclaimed, shamefully enjoy tuning in to the latest poptacular hit when you think nobody is noticing?

Well, for those of us that are committed to some belief or another, we’ve all found ourselves in a situation very much similar to the examples given above. As I approach my thirties, I must confess that when it comes to staying constant with personal values and beliefs,  I have certainly given more ground than kept. More often than not, I try to write this off as being a natural growth process, a coming of age even. It becomes all too tempting to romanticize these changes of heart as being akin to Kuhnian Shifts, regular but revolutionary transformations in the sort of problems and solutions I prioritize in my daily life. To a certain extent, this point of view finds validation and yet… when I consider to what extent I have remained a Believer vs. an Opportunist in different instances, it seems that I have fallen into the latter category far more than I would like to admit. This has especially become apparent in my consumer choices, where an affordable coffee and pastry has gained preference over the fair-trade-organic-environmental-conscious options.  It has also become noticeable in my attitude towards alternative and even opposing ideologies, where I am willing to accommodate and even sympathize with an individual or group’s insistence that animal consumption is an integral part of their cultural life.

So where does that leave me exactly? Am I being a fence-sitting hypocrite? A pathological cherry-picker? Dare I say it: a liberal? In his controversial work The Continent of Circe, cultural-political commentator Nirad Chaudhuri warns his readers that in Post-Independence India, the majority of the radical ‘modern world’ thinking college students become the staunchest of  traditionalists by their thirties. Much like the baby boomers that traded peace and love for financial success and stability or Gen X’s trade-in of Grunge ripped jeans for Gap Khakis, am I merely a fly on a web of an insidious ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ phenomenon? It’s a scary and unsettling thought.

Maybe I’m just making a big deal. I mean I can still say with confidence that I am personally a committed believer in Ahimsa (a Hindu ethic of non-violence), Human Rights, Environmentalism, Social Justice, and so on. Nonetheless, like the comedian Louis CK humourously pointed out about himself, there undeniably exists a gap between what I believe and what I practice. I’d like to say that I am fully committed to rectifying the situation and going back to living up to earlier expectations; however, all I would be doing is lying to myself. For one thing, as the author of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, wisely cautions elsewhere, “too much consistency is as bad for the mind as it is for the body. Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead.” In craving an overall healthy, ethical, and dynamic existence, I’m inclined to agree with Huxley. Secondly, making such a promise is easier said than done. Even if I desired to turn back the clock and put opportunism aside, can all self-ascribed beliefs be sustained and even so, at what cost? Interacting with individuals from all walks of life, it would be reckless and possibly harmful to overlook complexity and compassion in the name of ideological commitment.

So here we are, no easy solutions or satisfying conclusions. Being mindful of a willingness to compromise on personal ideals and the pros and cons of doing so certainly seems promising. It may lead to certain changes that would at the very least decrease the gap between what I preach and what I practice. Nonetheless, it is difficult to proceed with a clear sense of what certain changes are desirable, let alone feasible. Perhaps too then, through encounters with different life experiences and unexpected circumstances, I will increasingly acquire a balanced approach. For now, at least, it may be all that can be hoped for.

Why Making Reading A Part of Your Life is One of the Best Decisions You Can Make for Yourself

In Activism, Books, Culture, Globalization, Lifestyle, Opinions, Science, Society on September 29, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Although reading is widely recognized as a respectable hobby, the negative connotation of being a ‘bookworm’ lives on. Sure it is considered cool for adolescents to like to read popular fiction such as the Harry Potter series. It is even true that enjoying the occasional New York Times Best Seller is considered chic, and an essential part of bourgeois-pseudo-intellectual-Starbuck culture. However, when an individual’s passion for reading goes beyond superficial interest, it is not always well looked upon.

One charge is that reading too much undermines physical activity and encourages laziness. If you choose to spend long hours reading on a sofa instead of playing sports or working out, you might eventually find yourself needing to shave more than just a few pounds. Moreover, there is the view that beside being a form of entertainment, fictional books are not especially useful in the real world. While some dismiss it as being recreation, others, more harshly, regard it as a waste of time. Lastly, and perhaps the most persuasive of all, is the accusation that too much reading, like playing too much computer games, isn’t good for you. If you favour literature over interacting with other human beings, pursuing life goals, and becoming involved in day-to-day life, reading can become a form of escapism from reality. Rather than motivating personal development, it will serve to impede it.

Ironically, the logical extreme of these concerns is perhaps best represented in the main character of the modern classic, A Confederacy of Dunces. Ignatius J. Reilly, an obese penniless former graduate student, is obsessed with medieval literature to the point of harbouring a warped perception of himself and the world around him. More in touch with the writings of the Roman philosopher Boethius than his mother’s emotional and financial woes, Reilly’s bookish knowledge seems encourage his laziness, indifference, and reckless behaviour.

Maybe there are justifiable grounds for believing that there is such a thing as reading too much. However, I believe that for the vast majority of book lovers, reading is not only a healthy activity, but a pursuit that furthers personal growth and social awareness. There are good reasons for taking this stance.

For one thing, the view that excessive reading can lead to an unhealthy lifestyle rings hollow when one considers the amount of time people spend doing other more harmful indoor activities such as watching television. If anything, with the vast amount of up-to-date and self-help literature available, books are able to alert us about why regular consumption of fast-food and being a couch potato is so harmful to human health. In developed countries especially, books make it possible for almost anyone to gain an in-depth understanding of health issues in such a way that word-to-mouth, or even fast-pace-minute-by-minute media sources, simply can’t. How people choose to live with this easy-to-access information though is a different matter. After all, if you enjoy reading books but regularly sit or lie down for hours, chances are you probably have bigger problems than an addiction to ink on paper.

The novelist-activist Alice Walker once remarked “[i]f a book doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for?’’ Although she eloquently pointed out that the reading experience is relevant, she overlooked the fact that there is no way to know for sure whether one tale or the next will impact you positively or not. No matter how famous or popular a particular work is, it’s impossible to know if you will relate to it until you take the time to read it. Even then, you can’t be sure that it will be relevant to your existence today, tomorrow, next year, decades later, or perhaps ever! As most dedicated readers soon realize though, when one strikes gold, a story has the power to fill them with limitless inspiration, compassion, hope, courage, and determination. Literature, regardless of genre, has the potential to profoundly influence a person to make constructive changes to their lives and way of thinking. Making reading a regular part of life then, contrary to being a useless pastime, is if anything, a very worthwhile time investment.

If one is skeptical of opinion-based explanations for why a passion for reading is healthy, he or she may soon find themselves confronted by scientific proof. In “Why Fiction is Good for You,” the Globe and Mail considers a cognitive psychologist’s belief that  plays, stories, poems, and novels produce mental models in which readers can experiment with ideas about themselves and others. Describing preliminary psychological studies that support his hypothesis, the article proceeds to elaborate on the possibility that reading and talking about fictional works can powerfully shape our personalities. Comparing the reading experience to the use of a flight simulator, the psychologist explains how reading books and participating in book clubs enables people to open their minds to new ideas, perspectives, and possibilities within a ‘safe place.’

The implications of such research findings are significant. The studies would strengthen the view that fiction and non-fiction make it possible for hundreds of millions of human beings to access as well as share complex ideas, facts, worldviews, memories, and experiences from the comfort of their libraries, homes, and portable devices. Also, they would provide empirical evidence that books indeed have a vital role to play in enabling people to become informed and socially active like never before. Perhaps then, the title of bookworm would take on a entirely new meaning. One certainly can hope anyway!

For those interested in reading the Globe and Mail news report:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/books/why-fiction-is-good-for-you/article2159339/