Category archives for society

Have You Ever Actually Read That Thing?

I saw this headline today:

How Islamic is Islamic State?

And I started gibbering just a little. I admit, I haven't read the full article because, frankly, I don't really care about the answer. It's a stupid question.

But, like those who insist on calling the hijab a cultural artifact when confronted with the grim reality of women who are forced to wear it, many people seem to find the question pertinent.

It disturbs me how much energy is spent debating the issue. Ask yourself: if ISIS really were following the Koran to the letter, would that, in itself, make the murder somehow more acceptable? And if ISIS were not following the Koran to the letter, would that, in itself, make them somehow fairer targets? Much more importantly, why on earth should the contents of the Koran matter in this assessment?

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Putting "Meta" in Front of Words Makes them Sound Cooler, Right?

One time, back when I was actually semi-active on Google+, I came across a rather heated debate. Someone had posted an article telling the story of a child bride who had died on her wedding night. The post was directed accusingly at self-described proponents of "multiculturalism", an ideology which, in the poster's opinion, was in the same category as "cultural relativism", which he considered deeply depraved.

Unsurprisingly, the debate didn't center around the question of whether child marriage was a horrific practice that needed to be roundly condemned in the harshest terms possible - of course it was, and no one needed convincing - but rather around the original poster's insistence on conflating "multiculturalism" and "cultural relativism". People were insulted.

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On Being "Accommodating"

Niqabs are in the news again. Stephen Harper wants them off during the Canadian citizenship ceremony. The whole thing is surely a tempest in a teapot, as there have been a grand total of two, count 'em, two women since 2011 who have refused to show their faces during the ceremony, but it has started occasionally ugly debates on the limits of what is generally known as "religious accommodation".

First off, I should mention that I really dislike the term "religious accommodation".

It evokes entirely the wrong imagery. When someone is being "accommodating" they are doing something active, something they wouldn't normally do. So when someone says that they're being "accommodating" by allowing a woman to wear a niqab one gets the impression that this is something that they actively have to go out of their way to do - like changing lanes on the highway or something.

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Reflections on the Ethnic Vote

Jacques Parizeau died not too long ago. He infamously commented that the 1995 Quebec Referendum was lost due to money and the ethnic vote.

I was in high school, in Toronto, during the referendum. I remember my school following the whole thing very closely. I remember feeling relief when the No side won (by a hair) and I remember the uproar that his statements caused afterwards.

A word about my background before we go on. It's a bit of a mixed bag. I have a British first name (Desmond) and a French last name (Rivet). My mother is Sicilian. My father was French Canadian, though not technically Quebecois by birth (he was born in Sudbury). I myself was born in Montreal, so I am, in fact, a Quebecois by birth, but an Anglophone one, despite my last name. To make things more complicated, I spent a lot of my formative years (high school, University) in Toronto, so people often assume I'm from there.

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You Keep Using That Word

It's hard to talk about the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo without sounding like you're either a) apologizing for violence or b) spouting tired platitudes about free speech.

I mean, sure, like everyone else, I fully condemn the attacks, given that being offended is not a reason to, you know, shoot people. I feel really weird having to say that. Like they joked on The Daily Show, I sometimes worry if I'm being "denouncy" enough.

But there was something in France's reaction to the attacks (all those myriad "Je suis Charlie" placards) that rubbed me the wrong way, though I was having trouble identifying what it was.

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Charter Ramblings

Many years ago I read a book called The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson. The backdrop against which the story occurs is a relatively near future society where traditional notions of country and state have been largely supplanted by notions of "phyles" - tribes or groups having similar ethnic or cultural characteristics. One of the main characters, a Mr. John Hackworth, belongs to the Neo-Victorian phyle who, like their namesake, are a somewhat prudish lot who follow a rigid and absolute moral code.

The book is good, but one scene in particular has stayed with me. Hackworth is having a conversation with a few of his fellow Neo-Victorians. One of them asks him what he thinks about "hypocrisy". Hackworth doesn't quite know what to make of this question but eventually concedes, somewhat half-heartedly, that it's a "vice" - something that should be avoided. This eventually leads to a discussion about our time (the past, from their perspective) which, according to the Neo-Victorians, is characterized by a rampant moral and cultural relativism. It's a time where all philosophies, no matter how depraved, have equal value. In such a world, it's obviously unacceptable to criticize another person's beliefs because doing so would require some sort of objective standard of morality which, in their view, our age sorely lacks.

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The Cultureless

I don't really consider myself Canadian.

Of course, that's kind of a lie. It does say "Canada" on my passport, so there's that. If you ask me about my nationality, I'll say I'm Canadian. If you mistake me for an American, I'll politely correct you. I mean, everybody's got to be from somewhere, right? And I'm from Canada. So I guess that makes me Canadian.

But I don't feel "Canadian" in the same way that many people feel, say, French or British or Indian (or even, dare I say it, Quebecois). My place of birth doesn't form a big part of my personal identity. The nationality of my parents takes up even less head space - I don't consider myself Italian, for example, despite the fact that my mother was born in Sicily. I've never felt a strong desire to go "back to my roots". It rarely occurs to me to care very much, beyond a fondness for lasagna and rapini.

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Church, State, and Culture

Have you ever wondered why the separation of church and state is good idea?

I'm assuming, of course, that most everyone in my immediate social circle actually thinks it's a good idea, though since I read about that fiasco involving the mayor of Saguenay, this assumption is perhaps on shakier ground than I would have liked.

But, assuming that I'm correct, have you ever sat down and actually thought about why you think it's a good idea?

I've noticed at least two schools of thought among my friends. Some of them are simply anti-religion. They look at, for example, the Catholic Church's history of child abuse, or the practice of sati, and they conclude that the separation of church and state is a good idea for much the same reason that the separation of murder and state is a good idea. Religion is bad and the less it has to do with public life, the better.

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What Free Speech Isn't

I can never seem to blog in a timely manner. Lots of things in the world happen which I feel are deserving of comment, but my comments always seem to come a few months after the fact.

Take that recent Daniel Tosh incident, for example. He makes a rape joke during one of his routines, gets heckled by a female member of the audience for it, and then proceeds to suggest (jokingly, I can only assume) that some males in the audience rape her in retaliation.

So far, all we have here is a guy being a dick, which is nothing new. What makes this particular example of extreme dickery somewhat different, however, is that the woman in question complained to friend, who then proceeded to voice her displeasure via her Tumblr account. The whole thing snowballed from there, ultimately resulting in a public apology from Tosh.

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Religion Versus Culture

In the past, I've commented on France's ban of the niqab, noting in passing that the distinction some people make between religion and culture (emphasizing, for example, that the niqab is a Middle Eastern cultural tradition rather than a specific Islamic law), is irrelevant to question of whether a woman has the right to wear whatever the hell she wants in public - including, of course, a niqab if that's what floats her boat.

At the time, I more or less glossed over what I thought the actual distinction was between culture and religion, so with that in mind I'd like to expand a little on these thoughts and make the further claim (not so very controversial, I think) that the line between religion and culture tends to be blurry at best and, at worst, damn near non-existent.

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On the Banning of Niqabs

I'm a bit late to the party on this one, but last year France started fining women who wear the niqab in public, in defiance of a recently passed law banning religious face coverings in public. From the article, other countries (Belgium, Italy, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands and Switzerland) are planning similar legislation.

The article is noteworthy, not only for the content, which is informative, but also for the handy reference at the bottom explaining the difference between hijabs, niqabs, burkas.

(According to the article, hijab is a generic name for a headscarf, a niqab is a veil the covers the face but not the eyes, and a burka covers the the entire face and body, leaving just a mesh to see out of)

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French as an Emergent Property

In a previous blog entry, I described various solar system simulations I played around with in high school. These were perhaps more properly termed "gravity simulations" since what I simulated was not a solar system per se but rather Newton's laws of gravity and motion as applied to a bunch of swirling rocks, which would produce a solar system if the conditions were set up correctly. The orbits that you saw in these programs appeared naturally out of the math, as emergent properties of the equations - they were not explicitly programmed.

This is a key feature of the simulation; I did not start out by assuming that the orbit would be an ellipse, or that there would even be an orbit at all. Rather, I started from the basics: the laws of gravity and motion, and saw what came out of them.

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