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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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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/

Let Personal Experience and Critical Thinking be Your Guide

In Buddhism, Culture, Globalization, Huxley, Lifestyle, morality, Nietzsche, Opinions, Philosophy, Religion, society on September 1, 2011 at 5:31 am

Are you a vegetarian that finds yourself in awkward situations where, for instance, at a friend’s barbeque night, the tofu dogs are mixed with the beef patties? Are you a Left-a-Saurus that reads Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky by day, but hits that generic Irish-looking pub with the ever-glowing big-screens, ample supply of big-corporate brand beer, and service of over-worked-under-paid waitresses by night? Are you a regular church or temple goer that finds your personal opinions are becoming heavily influenced by non-believers? Are you friends with someone whose sexuality, ethnicity, or belief system isn’t considered ‘right’ according to the values of your family or community?

For those of us that are committed to some personal belief or practice, we’ve all found ourselves in situations very much similar to these. Although at times they can be humorous and trivial, in other instances they can be unsettling and life changing. How are we suppose to deal with challenges to our way of thinking and living when they arise?

Well, the way I see it, there are three options:

Option 1: If a belief or practice is no longer meaningful to you, discard or replace it. When giving up a belief or practice that you truly felt committed to, there is of course the implication of hypocrisy to consider. However, as the author of Brave New World, A. Huxley, aptly warns 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.” This point of view, by no means a new one, is eloquently encouraged in the verses of the Tao Te Ching:

When people are born they are gentle and soft.

At death they are hard and stiff.

When plants are alive they are soft and delicate.

When they die, they wither and dry up.

Therefore the hard and stiff are followers of death.

The gentle and soft are the followers of life

From this point of view, changing opinions, lifestyle choices, and even group loyalties that no longer satisfy you is quite normal and healthy. Confining yourself to a particular ideology or cause can become counterproductive to personal growth, and in more serious cases, even threaten your very wellbeing.

Option 2: Fight for who you want to be. As F. N. Nietzsche outlines in his work Beyond Good and Evil though, it all too easy to conform to social and political pressures that seeps into our lives and very difficult to be a person with a mind of his or her own. This is especially true in a day and age where most human beings live in densely populated societies that are increasingly becoming culturally homogenized on a global scale. Living in a technological “flat” world doesn’t even begin to describe it. For example, what teenagers typically prefer to eat, drink, read, play, buy, listen to, and watch in Yunlin Taiwan isn’t all that different from what youths generally like in Alberta Canada.  Living during a time of unprecedented economic, social, and political integration himself, Nietzsche was aware of how difficult it can be for one to deviate from family, community, and societal expectations. He knew only too well what was at stake. As he admits elsewhere, “[t]he individual has always to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened.” Nevertheless, he confidently adds “no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”

Option 3: Let personal experience and critical thinking be your guide. As the musician-poet Bob Dylan simply put it, “all I can do is be me, whoever that is.” Those that sincerely strive to live by certain principles, know that upholding beliefs and practices is a lifelong work-in-progress. Sooner or later, they discover that attempting to force conviction that isn’t there can be just as disastrous in consequence as hastily swinging from one way of thinking or acting to another. They risk not only hurting themselves, but those they care for as well as the very world they live in. So, when, more often than not, you are not sure whether to pursue option one or option two, take option three.

Here are four pointers on how to do so:

  • Prioritize what you personally want and need first. At first glance, this may seem like an awfully selfish thing to do. However, when you try to appease those you love, be they family, friends, or community by adopting ideologies and activities that you do not believe in, there is a huge risk that they may erode your happiness. If this happens, you will not only come to resent them, but the very people that sincerely embrace them. So rather than allow yourself to get suffocated by ideas and practices that aren’t your own, do everyone a favour and prioritize being truthful to yourself.
  • If your conduct becomes at odds with your beliefs, it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to throw in the towel. No matter what ideal you pursue, do bear in mind that you are only human. We all say or do certain things that we later wish that we had not. A lapse in faith or conviction does not need to inevitably result in a permanent situation. Admittedly, real world events, unforeseeable incidents, and dramatic changes in health can have an powerful influence upon our lives. Nonetheless, if you are able to read this blog post, then you most likely can think for yourself. So if you let yourself down for whatever reason, don’t lose heart. It is ultimately in your power to decide just how life’s various surprises can impact your thoughts and actions in the present.
  •  Don’t just take someone else’s word for it. As Buddha insisted to his disciples, they should trust their own personal experience and not just accept his teachings, or any other, at face value. In my humble opinion, truer words have been scarcely spoken. No matter whether it is an ancient scripture, popular belief, or a life-long held custom, it should have a unique meaning for you. If you eventually find it lacks any relevance or connection to your own life, then you may want to consider doing some self reflection and self exploration. But only do so if you feel it is necessary and even more importantly, when you feel ready.
  • Don’t be afraid to take a step out of your comfort zone. As the Scottish Philosopher David Hume cynically points out in An Enquiry of Human Understanding, those with religious belief tend to surround themselves with images, rituals, symbols, and figurines in order to sustain their faith. Although there is most certainly an anti-Catholic bias that shades his observation, Hume’s logic is not without merit and can certainly be extended beyond the God fearing. After all, those that associate themselves to some ‘-ism’ or another, be it spiritual or worldly, tend to be surrounded by literature, objects, symbols, customs, audio-visuals, and people that reinforces their belief in a chosen creed or lifestyle. It is very easy to get conditioned to a way of thinking or living that has almost become nearly habit. However, if you find that it is not useful to your life, don’t be afraid to expose yourself to a great big world full of new experiences. They can just as much reinvigorate your old worldview as transform it.

An introduction to Hinduism in less than 1,200 Words

In Culture, Hinduism, History, Philosophy, Religion, Vedantism on August 5, 2011 at 4:03 pm

About one year ago, my aunt asked if I would help her with a presentation on Hinduism that she had been requested to make at a community center. In agreeing to do so, I wrote up a concise series of questions-and-answers that I hoped would provide, at the very least, a general picture of what it means to be a “Hindu” in today’s world. It was also my hope that it would gently but firmly dispel some of the misconceptions about Hindu beliefs and practices that all too often creep into the way many of us, especially in North America, understand this admittedly confusing and complicated topic.

After creating this very general text, I decided to make it widely available. There are a lot of introductions to Hinduism online and in publication. However, more than a few can be misleading and convoluted. I sincerely hope interested readers will find my piece informative and useful. Thank you for taking the time to read this. Please feel free provide me with questions, comments, and feedback!

I. What is “Hinduism?”

The term “Hinduism” is often used to describe one of the many belief systems, traditions, and philosophies that almost all took shape in South Asia. Unlike other religious groups that originated on the Indian subcontinent (e.g., Sikhism and Jainism), sects and communities considered Hindu today base their beliefs and customs on the scriptural authority of the Vedas, teachings and hymns that were compiled into large bodies of texts sometime during the first millennium B.C.E. However, it should be acknowledged that these Vedic-based groups are to some extent influenced by the beliefs and practices of other religious groups (e.g., Theravada Buddhists and Sufi Muslims). They also differ very much from each other and in some cases, even promote opposing doctrines (e.g., Shaivism and Vaishnavism).

II. What role do stories play in Hinduism?

Stories play an important role in the various Hindu traditions of today. The Vedas and their commentaries, known as Upanishads, are written very abstractly and are very difficult to understand. Unsurprisingly, it is quite difficult for most believers to associate most of the content of these revered texts to their own existence. Stories then, from ancient times until present, have not only served to provide timeless moral guidance that everyday people can relate to, but have made the central principles and teachings of the Vedas understandable for general audiences. The impact of these tales on their audience cannot be underestimated. After all, when one reads or hears the many stories, it is difficult not to appreciate how the dilemmas and challenges that the central characters within them confront reflect the sort of problems that we, as individuals and members of a family, society, and country encounter in day-to-day situations. The tales can be found in literary works known as the Puranas as well as in Sanskrit epics, the most well known of the latter being the  Ramayana and Mahabharata.

III. Is Hinduism a polytheistic religion?

Admittedly, it is all too tempting to think of Hindu belief systems as being polytheistic. The vast Hindu pantheon, the presence of various deities in Hindu mythology, as well as the existence of sects and temples devoted to specific gods and goddesses certainly encourage this idea. Indeed, most Hindu traditions are not without a polytheistic element. However, they all recognize that creation is linked to a supreme reality, entity, and/or phenomenon within existence, known as Brahman. The gods and goddesses are usually understood as manifestations of Brahman that become directly involved in worldly affairs. Their activities can range from responding to prayers for a good harvest to assuming human form in order to help restore the balance of righteousness and virtue in the world. It is never clearly defined in most Hindu traditions whether Brahman is a monotheistic, monist, pantheistic, or panentheistic God.  Although the ambiguity of Brahman has spurred the creation of various schools of thought in Hindu philosophy, it is generally not considered a very important question among devotees. It is widely accepted that Brahman is truth, and that this truth is one, even if sages called it by different names.

IV. Are there rituals & festivals in Hinduism?

There are numerous rituals in Hindu traditions that are unique to specific cultural and regional groups within India. However, there are a number of rituals that the majority of believers partake in. Devotees, either among their family members or community, participate in prayer services, known as Pooja. Pooja is either conducted in a family home or in a temple known as a Mandir. During Pooja, believers will chant prayers, read passages from sacred texts, and sing prayer songs. The prayer service usually concludes with a ritual called Aarti and the offering of blessed food, known as prasadam. Other significant rituals are usually performed at important junctures of an individual’s life such as birth, marriage, and death.

There are also various festivals that are celebrated by Hindu believers. Diwali, Holi, and Raksha Bandhan are among the most widely recognized. Diwali, the festival of lights, celebrates Lord Rama’s return from exile after defeating the tyrannical king of Sri Lanka, Ravana. Lord Rama’s victory over Ravana and return to his ancient kingdom of Ayodhya represents for many devotees the triumph of good over evil. The event is celebrated with great enthusiasm, with the exchange of gifts and good wishes, over-consumption of delicious foods and sweets, evening prayers, companionship of friends and family, the lighting of many candles, and sight of many fireworks in the night sky. Holi, the festival of colours, celebrates young Lord Krishna’s fun-filled play with the cow-herd girls that he grew up with, especially his childhood friend and later lover, Radha. The festival marks the beginning of spring and a time of romance. Devotees celebrate this festival with much singing, dancing, and throwing of colours at one another. Raksha Bandhan celebrates the relationship between female and male members of the family. The sacred bond between brother and sister is a major theme in Hindu mythology. This festival is highlighted by a female member of the family tying a holy thread known as a rakhi on her male relative’s arm. In turn, the male relative gives a gift to his female relative and promises to protect her. They then feed each other sweets.

V. Did Mahatma Gandhi base his ideology on Hinduism?

When leading the civil disobedience movement against British rule on the Indian subcontinent, M. K. Gandhi not only made himself the leader of a nationalist movement, but strove to be a living and breathing example of principles based on Hindu teachings and traditions. His aim was to simultaneously facilitate the worldly and spiritual regeneration of the Indian people. Gandhi practiced an ethic of non-violence known as ahimsa. Ahimsa, a Hindu as well as Jain concept, requires its believers to remain committed to a pacifist lifestyle, to abhor any form of violence, and to not consume animal flesh of any kind. Gandhi also sought to promote simplicity, frugality, and asceticism by conducting his life according to the principles of a Brahmacharaya. A Brahmacharaya follows a mystic tradition based on a prominent Hindu philosophy called Vedantism. He or she is required to not only devote their life to realizing Brahman, but in doing so, to renounce worldly pleasures and material desires. Lastly, Gandhi’s willingness to endanger his personal welfare in order to end British imperialism and to oppose bloodshed was inspired by the verses of a sacred Hindu text called the Bhagavad-Gita. The Gita, the Song of the Lord, is among the most influential of Hindu scripture. It endorses karma-yoga, the path towards oneness with Brahman through a life of virtue and righteous action.

Further Reading:

There are excellent books on this topic that I’d strongly recommend to anyone who has a genuine interest in learning more about Hinduism:

(1) Jeaneane D. Fowler, “Hinduism Belief, Practices & Scripture”

(2) Rabindernath Tagore, “Sadhana: The Realisation of Life”

(3) Works of C. Rajagopalachari

(4) The latest editions of “Sources of Indian Tradition,” Vol. 1 & 2