Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Think. Act. Do. Feel? : On the relationship between knowledge and emotion

Think. Act. Do. Feel? : On the relationship between knowledge and emotion

I’ve decided to write on a topic preeminently philosophical, but also psychological, religious, phenomenological, and much else. It has the two-faced caricature, prima facie, of being on the one side either too complex for discussion, or on the other, as some might critically contest, too mundane to warrant discussion. But I will venture into these murky waters nonetheless, and hopefully many informants will mean better navigation. So here it is, with all of its existential significance: How does information, upon being received, affect a person? How do ‘facts’ become internalized, appropriated, given a “home to roost” (as Hannah Arendt puts it) within us, so that they can then be translated in all of their meaningfulness into practice that makes a difference?

I’ve been interested in the idea of character, lately (with much credit due to reading Arendt). The notion that thinking about things creates change internally is simple yet profound. But I want to go deeper than thought. I want to ask about the evocative power of story, of the affect facts and stories have on our hearts (for do we not all have a sense of what we mean when we use the word ‘heart’ instead of ‘mind’?). Let’s provisionally call ‘heart’ that in which our emotions dwell and flow from. I find this discussion particularly intriguing because it is one in which anyone can participate; all one has to do is reflect on their own experience (that is not to say that secondary sources wouldn’t be appreciated here, too, but just to say that personal experience is most important in this case and makes the discussion accessible to all).

Here is an example of my own. When I hear a fact, this is what a process I go through might look like: (1) I stop and think about it; I repeat it to myself, just to let it sink in. (2) I allow it time to move something in me. (3) If I am emotionally moved to “do something about it,” I then think about what I can conceivably accomplish. (4a) I will either feel overwhelmed by the thought of getting involved or discouraged that it won’t amount to much, or (4b) I will feel empowered and become determined to make a conscious and committed change in my life that will at least be “doing my part.” But in almost all of these steps, emotion, or what French phenomenologist Michel Henry calls ‘affectivity’ plays a central role in my move either toward action or resignation.

In this regard, how far can philosophy or a religious message go in participating in the concrete dilemmas of our world if it only appeals to our reason? But the ‘heart’ and the ‘heart’ are never so separate from one another. What for you reaches your affect the most?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Reflecting on Social Justice and Human Rights


The post this week is by Allyson Carr, who was a worker at the Conference on Social Justice and Human Rights discussed in this post and is currently the Associate Director of the Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics.

As some of you may recall, this past April the Centre co-hosted a major conference on Social Justice and Human Rights. The conference themes have set much of the tone for the material on this blog over the past year, both prior to the conference and afterwards, and there has been a great deal of good discussion that came out of the conference itself, including at least two projects: one on conceptions of social justice among faith groups (with the CRC being a focal microcosm) and one on economic justice. Given the high quality of the work presented there and the conversations that followed it, we have been working on compiling summaries of all of the sessions that took place during the two day conference. The summaries are ready for viewing now and a pdf of them can be found here. I encourage you to take the time to read through them, but we will also shortly be posting each summary separately on our conference blog, to enable commenting on topics in particular sessions. We’ll let you know when those are up, as well as when the video currently being produced, which highlights aspects of the conference's thinking on social justice and human rights issues, becomes available. For our discussion here this week, though, I'm just going to pull out a few points that really struck me. We can discuss those here, and continue discussions of the more specific issues that are raised in the summaries as they get posted on the conference blog. 

Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff was the keynote speaker who opened the conference, and as it discusses in the summary of his opening lecture, any reckoning with the issues of social justice and human rights can not meaningfully proceed until that reckoning is able to give an account of why justice matters. In all the very important activist work and theory production that goes on both in the advocacy world and academia, giving a an account of "why does justice matter?" can get lost in the details of fighting for justice. And yet, without such an account, how can we persuade the sceptical or agree on what constitutes justice in very complex cases, even where all sides desire justice? Does justice matter because without it we are not responding to some normative call for fairness? Does it matter because only with justice is any real human flourishing possible? Do we think of justice as a response mandated by divine authority, and if so, what does that mean for those who believe no such thing exists? Is justice necessary in a positive sense for social progress, or in a negative sense--to avoid things like war and suffering? Why should we, all of humanity, care about justice, and can we even have, is it even desirable to have, the same reason(s) for doing so?

The next thing that struck me as I read through the summaries again was comments by Dr. Abdulaziz Sachedina, who spoke as a panellist in the inter-religious plenary panel on Religion and Human Rights in Canada of the need to find ways where liberal and orthodox traditions within a particular religion can learn to speak meaningfully with each other, making genuine progress through real dialogue. It was this emphasis on placing what often become opposing forces within a religious tradition--orthodoxy and liberalism, to paint in broad brush strokes--in real dialogue with each other that spoke to me. So often a human tendency seems to be to pull away from speaking or engaging with those with whom one does not agree, leaving sides to any given debate more and more polarized. We can see this within the Christian tradition as well, where divisions over "fundamentalism" and "liberalism" have shoved a growing wedge between members. How do we switch from polemics to real, engaged, debate and dialogue? 

Although there were many other discussions that made me pause and reflect and which I feel have been particularly helpful in transforming my own work and practice, I'll mention one other spot that stuck out to me in the summaries. This was the words of Deborah Stienstra in the panel "Disability and Human Rights: Issues of Access and Attitudes." So much of the conversation at the conferenced focused on finding a language and conceptual apparatus by which necessary practical work in human rights issues and advocacy could be done, but much of that discussion had centred on what, exactly, constituted a right or possibly even a human right. Dr. Stienstra posed the question from a different angle, implicitly asking how we think of what constitutes a human. Her point that disability is part of being human was a poignant reminder of our humanity, in all its personal and collective frailty, finitude and beautiful diversity. Any discussion of rights and justice needs to remember this, and remember the different needs and abilities of the complex creatures we all are.

There were many other very important and insightful discussions that warrant extended discussion toward transforming the way we live and work: the panel on Aboriginal Rights in Canada had vital reflections on land and identity that need to be heard and taken up; the panel on Environmental Rights highlighted the urgent need for stopping global ecological disaster before it becomes unavoidable; the panel on Children's Rights spoke of the intense impact of abuse and exploitation on the coming generations, and the need to provide a safe and flourishing upbringing not just for some children, or even "most" children, but for all children. 

There were a myriad of excellent discussions and discussion-starters, but I've raised these ones in particular to whet your appetite and get us talking. All of these issues are ones which we cannot afford to ignore, and which even if we could, I would argue that to do so would be fundamentally wrong. This is because justice does  matter, and our ability to pursue justice successfully is an intimate picture of who humans are and who we are becoming.  

Thursday, November 01, 2012

‘Cyber Sinai’? Does our world need of a code of ‘cyberethics’?

In the wake of the gut-wrenching episode orbiting around the death of Amanda Todd, there is much leftover in the proverbial pot to stew in our minds. For one thing, what about regulation in the cyber sphere? The conflicts that used to be confined to after-school hours have moved to a whole new dimension – playground bullying has escalated to the point where the battleground is literally everywhere in range; the jungle gym has become a fully-fledged and merciless (proverbial) jungle.

“It’s not that bad,” you might respond. I would say for many it is. Yes, those pockets of safety exist in and out of schools and that is to be praised. But I would not want to imply that technology is solely to blame for rises in rates of suicide among teens (that would be much to simplistic). But I do think it is a good time to discuss the plausibility and nature of what can be done to harness the cyber world’s power for good instead of harm. Social theorists and philosophers at the turn of the century were already wary of the effects that the surge of power brought on by the Enlightenment would have in the age to come. And they made predications that are now coming true. So while yes, there has been an explosive amount of work done related to this issue, I suggest modern phenomena have resulted that these theorists were not able to predict. The responsibility remains ours to think through the pervasive effects of technology on individuals and society at large.

Perhaps because it is still such a relatively new object of research, findings have yet to be confirmed by long-term studies. This status of being “still-in-the-works” means that important information has yet to be dispersed to the wider public and in the meantime, we have the obligation to think through these issues ourselves. I certainly have tried in my own personal life to establish a healthy relationship to the Internet (I’ve had quite the love-hate relationship with Facebook, “breaking-up” with it one too many times only to come crawling back months later).

A friend of mine who games online once commented on the sickening amount of harassment that coexists alongside other contrastingly positive effects of online community. Much of the harassment is misogynistic. It is much more difficult for anyone to hold the offender accountable for the words that they can so effortlessly spew onscreen. In a comfortable alienation from their words and “online actions,” the offender is protected by the medium of technology separating them from their peers and own productivity. Fundamentally, human rights don’t change online; and yet, they become easier to violate as the humanity of the other person diminishes onscreen.

What can we do, if anything, to protect our whole selves, our children, and each other from ‘cybersins’, (for lack of a better word)?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Pondering Remembrance

It is often said that it’s one of the jobs of historians to remember and help us remember the past to keep us from a repetition of the same mistakes. While I’m sure mistakes do often get repeated left, right, and centre on every continent and strata of society in one form or another, I would also say that there are ‘mistakes’ and ‘Mistakes’. There are events throughout our histories that have fundamentally shaped our worlds, altering their courses, for better or for worse. In these cases, ‘catastrophes’, ‘atrocities’, or ‘tragedies’ would be more appropriate in naming such events.

And now the predicament. For many reasons, in this day and age, our senses of time can seem unbalanced: one can be wistfully stuck in the past, blindsided to all but the here and now (the romanticized notion of ‘living in the present’), and/or fixated on the ‘not-yet’ (we have an inability to appreciate the past and present as we scurry from one activity to the next). Many of us do not know our country’s history, our family heritage, or even really what’s going on in the world at large. While I’m sure there are many factors that could account for this, what I’m wondering, as Remembrance Day approaches, is what power reflective engagement can have to transform humanity. I state that generally because I think I’m right in believing that remembering can transform not just individual lives, but ― as this act multiplies in the lives of individuals ― societies and even nations can be transformed.

At the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association’s conference I went to last Saturday, I heard a young woman named Rachel give a paper where she proposed a new model of working with Toronto’s inner city poor based on her experience with the outreach called ‘Sanctuary’. In particular, what I remember is her discussion of ‘memorial’ or ‘anamnesis’: a recalling, or more aptly put, a re-telling. What she found was that the more the community grew in friendship and trust and could share their stories of past hurt and present frustrations, the more healing was brought to them. They had to remember these issues and their own personal histories – to look them in the eye – in order to be free from the destructive powers of these hurts. In this way, remembrance led to reconciliation.

In Christianity, the Eucharist or ‘communion’ is a time to remember the sacrifice of Christ on our behalves. The theologian J├╝rgen Moltmann writes, “Eschatological hope for the future always also confers retroactive historical community” and informs that an inscription at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem (the holocaust memorial) reads, “Forgetfulness leads to exile, while remembrance is the secret of redemption.”

I dwell on the act of remembrance because it is a possibility open to all life and all cultures – yes, I believe it is universal. But in what way might (what we might call ‘inauthentic’) remembrance obstruct reconciliation, healing, or positive transformation? That is to say, what distinguishes remembering that leads to freedom from remembering that leads to guilt of self and others? And how do other religions incorporate this primordial practice of remembering as well? What specific events ought never to be forgotten but indeed passed down from generation to generation? Quebec’s slogan is “Je me souviens” (I remember…), and the veteran’s memorial one is “Lest we forget.” Have we forgotten? Just as Paul in his letter to the Colossians solicited the remembrance of the church (“Remember my chains”), what voices in distress cry out to be remembered by those in freedom?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Working Theory and Practice Together


First I should start with an apology for the lack of new content in the last month—with the new academic year starting, other projects became urgent, and we at the Centre have been looking for a Junior Member to take over writing some of these posts. I am happy to say that we have found one, and Sarah will begin writing shortly. This will be my last full post for a while at least, but I look forward to introducing Sarah soon. Stay tuned for more conversation!

It seems to me that for those of us for whom scholarship is part of our calling, a re-orientation or renewed return to our context is sometimes needed. We are used to reflecting on texts, on ideas, on concepts, and such reflection is necessary for our work. But we also need to come back to all the messy chaos of practice from time to time, of what is happening in the world around us and what effect, if any, we are having on that world. The question has been raised here in earlier posts of what academics can really do in terms of working for social justice, and to my mind that is a question to which we must keep coming back. If we are going to take seriously the call, as part of scholarly vocation, that our theories and philosophical efforts must work toward engaging and mutually transforming this context in which we find ourselves (in terms of Reformational language, working for Shalom) then that question, what can we do as scholars to work for social flourishing, should be at the forefront of our thought. It should be one we struggle with regularly, one we allow to challenge our research and our writing, our teaching and our learning.  

This does not mean that we all need to become political theorists or philosophers whose sole research concerns are social justice. But it does mean, I believe, that we need to be able to give an articulate answer to the question of how our work contributes to wider social flourishing, and why we chose to do it—and we need to let those more practical questions influence us. I once had a friend, whose candour I appreciated, ask me “yes, your research is very interesting and I enjoy reading it, but how is talking about how narrative is used in philosophy (my research project) going to fill anybody’s belly? How is it going to address any real suffering? Is it really going to have any impact on people’s lives?” Those are important questions to be asked, and though I had already considered them a bit, being confronted by them in a constructively critical way, again and again, forced me to really reflect and articulate how this was so, how my work was working deeply both on a scholarly level and as connected to the real needs of my social context. It also, and just as importantly, forced me to continue going back to that context, to the nitty gritty details of life, to reading the news and knowing what is happening in the world around me and talking to those whose calling is more concerned with practice than with theory.

It’s that seeming divide we keep coming back to—the apparent gap between theory and practice. In the work I have done with this Centre over the last few years, a particular point has been brought home to me again and again: I, as a scholar, cannot leave practice aside. I cannot leave practical matters aside. I need to talk, and listen, to those outside of academia. We need to work together in order to make both our work better and in order to better reach a wider audience to effect greater and more lasting changes.

If I could draw a cheeky analogy with the theatre, what if we imagined a play that was collaboratively written by everyone who was going to be working on it, both onstage and backstage? In terms of such a collaboratively written play, could we think of activists and practitioners as the actors who perform the play and bring it to life, the people whose faces you see, while the theorists are like the backstage techs—people who handle lighting and costumes and set construction, etc? In the (metaphorical) play I’m talking about, both theorists and practitioners had a hand in writing it, and everyone has a hand in making it come together as a finished whole; as a work with hopefully transformative power.

More and more people are trying collaborative work like this. I’m not talking about writing a play together (though that would be interesting!) but rather designing a project, one that looks at a real and pressing social issue through the eyes of both practitioners and theorists together, and depends on everyone working together to carry it out. So, speaking now as scholars, how do we bring our work to bear on all the complexity that pressing social issues entail and with all the depth of engagement that good scholarly work should have? How do we do so in a way isn’t just paying lip service, and that also allows us, as scholars, to stay true to the more abstract work we are engaged in, that truly can be necessary background work without which practice might miss some important possibilities? And how can we work together with those who, from their concrete and day-to-day engagement with people, governments, agencies and issues, know the immediate context “on the ground” better than we do? It strikes me that we can accomplish more together than apart.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Relating justice and faith


We talk a lot about justice on this blog, and in this entry as the Summer wraps up, I want to talk about what justice is in relation to one's faith or spiritual vocation. The thing that has occasioned this particular entry is a meeting I had recently where we talked a bit about concepts of justice and how, as Dr. Wolterstorff mentioned in his address at the Social Justice and Human Rights conference, justice differs from benevolence. During this meeting, someone raised the question of whether justice had any links to piety, and to a sense of Christian calling. I thought that was a pretty good question.

It's an important question for the Christian tradition, of course, because the answer will shape the way Christian faith is understood. This is not to say that other faith traditions don't also have conceptions of justice as part of a spiritual calling—many do, and one of the greatest things about inter-religious dialogue is the fact that we can learn from each other's understandings. What, then, do we as followers of Christ bring to the proverbial table in terms of understandings of justice? And are such concepts linked for us not just to a moral imperative to do the “right thing” but to the very ground of our faith?

In thinking through this question, it struck me that both the Old and New Testaments have quite a bit to say on the matter, and many of the passages that could be cited use language that is quite striking. In Isaiah 59:15-16, for example, God is described as being “appalled” at the lack of justice, and at the fact that there was “no one to intervene” when the needs of justice were not met. Interestingly enough, earlier in the same chapter, injustice is described in terms of spurious law suits and false witness, and while law during the time the book of Isaiah was written is certainly a great deal different than law today, they are part of the same tradition (very broadly defined) stretching across time. “Intervening”, then takes on a particular tone, and justice is linked with law--with what is required of one.

In the Gospel accounts, justice does not appear in quite the same way, but Christ does issue a very specific call regarding “whatever you do to the least of these”. In that passage, he describes those who intervened in a different way: clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the imprisoned. Furthermore, Christ draws a parallel with the treatment of “these” people, and the treatment of his own person. He seems to make it clear that however we act to those in need is how we act to Christ himself.

If, then, God is appalled at injustice, as Isaiah describes it, and Christ issues a very pointed call to feed, clothe and otherwise care for those in need, it seems to me that acting justly—where such action is understand as intervening to help those in need, treating them as we would treat Christ, were we to suddenly stumble across him in a similar situation—is in fact part of a Christian vocation, and not just “what we should do.” (Which is in no way to detract from saying that acting justly is what we should do). Going out on a limb here, I would even say that we could call it a requirement of faithful living. 

In the understandable rush to work for justice in this day and age, those of us who are already justice advocates of one kind or another can become enmeshed in structures that are not comfortable with spiritual language such as “calling” or “spiritual discipline”—another phrase I have recently heard used to describe justice work. And I think we do have to be aware of whether that kind of language can be alienating to some. But I also think, for those who consider themselves to be followers of Christ, that it is worth having a look at our own concepts of justice, and how they may be linked to our very vocation--how they may be linked to our commitment to be a follower of Christ. Can we see such a relation between justice and a life of faith?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Bodies and non-consumable justice

I had started out writing a blog entry on street violence and social justice, and I think that is an important topic that I hope to cover soon. Certainly it has been in the headlines a lot lately, given all the recent gun violence in particular, both right here in Toronto and also with the recent tragic theatre shooting in Colorado.

But it struck me that there was more to be said about the last entry's discussion, which has already ranged widely. Quoting Wedell Berry, Jennifer raised the question a few days ago, "are bodies understood as 'product[s], made delectably consumable'? And if so what are the devastating consequences of such an understanding?" Delectably consumable is quite a phrase, but I think it points to a deep problem we do face when it comes to conceptions of our bodies and other people's bodies. We spent some of the discussion in the last entry speaking indirectly about what happens when the environment is understand as something like delectably consumable. What about bodies, though?

Berry's quote rings true to a certain and current construction of culture, at least from what I have seen, and when we view our bodies as products instead of living, relational creatures, we put them in different categories that have as their goal not flourishing or living, but rather marketability. One can put a product on the market, get a fair price for it (or not) and turn a profit, or sustain a loss. While it is often used metaphorically, this language can also become a very real and painful reality in cases of human trafficking, where humans are quite literally the product being sold. (though in those cases, I would refuse to go near words like "fair price", since there is no price that can or should be put on humans) But there is an different and more subtle (though no less real, I deem) danger than openly or metaphorically putting prices on our bodies. If we think of our bodies as products, we put ourselves in the position of competing for a share of what the market can hold. Perhaps I put my product out only to find someone else has already put a newer, shinier product out. When bodies are that product, instead of recognizing the worth that we all have inherent to us, now my body appears to have little to no worth, and any worth it has it only has in a kind of competitive relationship to all the other bodies. When this happens, notions of justice get very unfortunately tied to these market relationships. The question becomes not "are human rights and dignity being respected" (or animal rights, or the question we faced last entry regarding environmental rights) but instead "are we getting a fair trade?" The mechanics and consequences around trading, marketing and economizing bodies, and whether it can allow for justice for humans is not itself examined. 

I wonder, hearing about the various recent violent episodes both here and elsewhere, whether there is an underlying connection. I know that with much street violence, problems such as poverty, hopelessness, and even other forms of economic disability are some of the root issues (so I am not poo-pooing economics itself as such; rather viewing our bodies as yet another commodity). But I wonder whether thinking of our bodies as a commodity also contributes to the problem of violence? It is much easier to dispose of or 'consume' a product than a person with a name and a life story. Additionally, justice surrounding a consumable product has to do not with the thing itself--I don't think it makes sense to talk about justice for my toothbrush--but with the people or creatures for whom the product is intended. It becomes consumable justice then; when the product is gone, or the trade is finished, isn't it true that other concerns take over? We, as living bodies however, need justice that is not consumable, that constitutes a real norm that doesn't go away. Even if we misconceive of our bodies as products, we are still living creatures, and the claim for justice remains. So my question for this week is whether my link between thinking of bodies as products in some way does contribute to a greater possibility for violence, given the catalysts of other root causes like poverty and hopelessness that I mentioned above?

(Note: as of Friday the 27th, I will be away from any computers for a few days (camping in a field), but I will be checking back in on the conversation shortly. Please feel free to continue leaving comments and discussing, and I will join back in as soon as I can find an internet connection, which should only be a few days. Talk with you all soon!)

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Summer is coming...

For any of you that have read George R.R. Martin's ongoing series (or watched the TV spin off), the title of today's post might have made you chuckle. "Winter is coming" is the motto of the Starks, one of the families Martin's series follows, and the idea of the oncoming Winter as both metaphor and very harsh reality is practically omnipresent in the books. Without wanting to give too much away about the series' sweeping and complex plot, in the world in which these books take place, seasons do not last for a set amount of time.  One never knows ahead of time how long a Winter or Summer (or Fall or Spring for that matter) will last--and the Winter holds a cruel promise of deprivation, want, desperation, madness, and the threat of violence of an even worse sort. Martin's world is grim, and only becomes grimmer as the Winter comes closer. "Winter is coming" becomes then a phrase to remind those who hear it that the worst is yet to come, that those who are ill-prepared won't stand a chance, and that many who are well prepared might not make it, but had better try anyway.

Yet I write "Summer is coming". Indeed, in one sense Summer is already here, and has been for several days. Children are ending their school year and the long weekend that marks Summer's opening for many people is just ahead of us. Of course I am not speaking only of our calendar Summer when I chose to bring it up here. Rather, I am speaking of Summer as a time of plenty, of blossoming, of freedom and relaxation and playfulness; a time of growth and bonding. I am using Summer here as a metaphor for social flourishing and a just world.

By now you may be thinking, "Allyson, you must be delusional! Look at the world around you; it seems on the brink of chaos. There's injustice everywhere, and environmental disasters, and civil wars, and governments cracking down on their own citizens, and possible economic collapse--how can you possibly think Summer is coming? If ever the Stark motto fit, now would be the time!" The funny thing is, a large part of me would agree with you, if that is what you're thinking. We do seem to be heading into leaner and rougher times. But that's precisely why I say, "Summer is coming."  I am a cyclical thinker, and the truth is that if Summer is coming, so is Winter. In fact, if Summer is "coming", it's likely that we're standing in Winter right now. And, just like in Martin's novels, we don't know how long this Winter is likely to be.

I raise this point because in the many necessary preparations for all the harsh facts of our present and projected future social, political, and environmental climate, I sometimes wonder if preparing for the possibility of "better days" is necessary too. I am hardly advocating we all put on rose-coloured glasses and ignore our present crises. Swift and wise action is needed to combat the environmental damage we have already done and continue to do. The level of suffering, poverty and violence around the globe needs to be lowered (eradicated would be even better, but that would take a transformation I at least can't forsee.) Our metaphorical Winter in all its harshness must be lived in and responded to, lest the life-and-soul draining forces of Winter run roughshod over us due to our own lack of preparation, and even our own actions in bringing the Winter here. But while we do this, should we not also be trying to think in terms of preparing structures that call forth flourishing--to think about justice and prepare for justice not just as a negative (fighting against injustices) way, but also in terms of a positive this is what justice and social flourishing might look like for these issues or contexts. In one of the comments on last week's post, Jared said we need to be "giving back to the creation what it needs to flourish once again". I think this is good insight, insofar as it is possible for us to do so. In at least some very significant ways, we, humans, are responsible for having called this harsh "Winter" into reality. If we were to be able to give back to creation what it needs to flourish again, could we not do the inverse and begin to call a "Summer" full of life and health into reality?

Of course, such a seasonal change is not going to happen overnight--if it happens at all. I admit in fact that I myself tend more toward the "Winter is coming" mentality, and that proclaiming or calling for the coming of Summer is for me more an act of spiritual discipline than it is a present understanding. But as a spiritual discipline it is something I believe may constitute a "calling" proper: a practice that is at the same time a vocation--and once which perhaps we are all called to, in different ways. In order to try to bring that Summer into reality, I try to balance the work I undertake against injustice with work that positively envisions and works for justice as the normal state of being. The question is then, what can we do (along with fighting the environmental, social and political injustices already here) to structure justice into our lives and actions? Is it a matter of writing better policy? Of putting new laws in place? Of changing the hearts and minds of individuals or changing the practices of corporations? Or do we perhaps need better theory behind our actions? Do we need to define what a right is, and whether (for example) the earth itself has "rights"? How can we decide this, on a global scale--who do we need to get talking to each other? How can we bring different groups together to the proverbial "table" and help them listen and learn from each other, working together for justice?

The seasons of Spring and Fall, metaphorically speaking, have always seemed to me to be times of people going their separate ways and being more focused on their own small groups, such as families. The proverbial crops need to be planted in Spring and harvested in the Fall, and those are times when one tends to one's own business, so to speak. Summer and Winter have a different metaphorical feel. In a harsh Winter, people pull together for warmth and to share scarce resources to ensure mutual survival. Desperate circumstances can make partners out of unlikely groups. Likewise in Summer people come together, but now to celebrate and bond. Festivities can also bring out unlikely partnerships, as people and groups find they had more in common than they thought and are more oriented toward a spirit of hope or joy. Given that we appear to be standing facing a long hard Winter, and given our (hopeful) orientation toward working for the coming of Summer, how can we pull together, and what particular issues should we be working on for creating positive accounts of what justice looks like? My plan in posing this question is to get a sense of what people believe are the pressing issues to be addressed, and then open a series of posts on some of those particular issues, with a view for discussing positive constructions of justice within them. I've thrown out the question of "environmental/earth rights" for discussion here. What say you?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Public Space, Hate Groups, and the Practice of Re-naming


Due to the nature of some of the comments received when this reflection on "Public Space, Hate Groups and the Practice of Re-naming" was originally posted, it was temporarily taken down while the moderator clarified the comment policy. The clarified policy and the original post are now included here below. Thank you for your patience!

Policy on Commenting on Ground Motive Blog

Ground Motive Blog is intended to be a forum for discussion and dialogue at the intersection of philosophy, religion and social ethics. It focuses on issues of social justice and aims to foster conversation that is open, thoughtful and respectful. Since it is a blog concerned with dialogue on topics of social justice as they are raised within the disciplines of philosophy, religion and social ethics, debate and exploration of differences is encouraged. All are welcome to comment on any postings as well as on the comments others have left. In order to preserve a good space for mutual dialogue, however, Ground Motive is a moderated blog. Any comment that is disrespectful, abusive or off topic may be deleted. Those who continue to post comments which are disrespectful, abusive or off topic may be banned from commenting.

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The story I'm picking up on today isn't local to where the Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics is geographically situated (in Toronto), but it is an important one that applies in many ways across borders and in many locales. What do you do when a group known for hate and even violence wants to do its "civic duty" and involve itself in activities typically seen as being for the public good? If a hate group, for example, wanted to participate in a governmentally-sponsored program to pick up litter in public areas, should they be allowed to do so under the name of their group or is that just giving them the chance to look better in the public eye, possibly recruiting more members who may not otherwise have joined because of the stigma?

This is precisely the question Union County, Georgia is facing. A local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan has applied there to participate in the "Adopt a Highway" program, which is meant to empower groups of volunteers to help clean up litter and debris that accumulates along sections of public roads. The federal courts have already ruled in another similar case, where a KKK chapter applied to adopt a highway and was refused, that they must be allowed to participate if they want to. (Incidentally, as the article I linked to above discusses, in that case the county responded by allowing the chapter to proceed as the court directed, but also re-named that section of the road after civil rights activist Rosa Parks. Eventually the county also argued the group was not picking up the litter as promised, and so revoked the application.)

It goes without saying that the KKK has a history of racism and violence, and despite some members insisting the group is not racist today, it is still on the Southern Poverty Law Center's list of Hate Groups. Certainly that is the perspective of this author as well. And so, what is the/a socially ethical response to this situation? I raise this question not mainly for an immediate and practical decision of "yes, let them pick up the litter" or "no, they should be refused because hate groups have no place in the public sphere" but rather to raise the larger question of how to navigate relations in the public sphere. In a society that is structured to be both pluralist and democratic, how do we deal with groups that benefit from that democratic pluralism while denying its legitimacy?

Let me backtrack just a moment. On a trip to Detroit visiting relatives a while ago, I was standing outside the Downtown Detroit Greyhound bus station waiting for my ride to arrive when a city bus pulled up. Out of habit I glanced at the bus route name on its front and did a double-take. Emblazoned there, on a city bus, was "Rosa Parks Boulevard". I was deeply emotionally struck at the wonderful irony of having a city bus route bearing the name of the woman known for being arrested after refusing to give up her bus seat to racial segregation, albeit in a different city. Later during the visit I mentioned what I had seen to my mother, who has lived in the area around Detroit most of her life, and she told me that part of that bus's route went along the street where Detroit's 1967 race riots began (12th Street), and that the street had been re-named quite some time ago in the 70's precisely due to its connection with the riots. I knew about the riots, of course, but had not realized what street they had begun on, and though I had already known for years that there was a Rosa Parks Boulevard in Detroit (and had driven on it), it was the wonder of seeing her name on a bus that struck me.

The 1967 Detroit race riots were among the most violent in U.S. history, and re-naming the street where they began after a woman who was a vital part of the civil rights movement was at the same time an important act of remembering and an act of hope for societal re-organization toward justice. Reading the current story about the KKK chapter wanting to participate in the Adopt-a-Highway program, and the previous county's decision to re-name the section of street they wanted to clean after Rosa Parks as well, something struck me about the re-organizational power of re-naming a space. Reflecting on that, I began to look at what kind of responses are possible within the public space to groups that promote hate and groups that deny the legitimacy of democratic pluralism in general. Certainly there are ways to work within the structure of democratic pluralism and still limit the reach of such groups and their power. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives guidance for this in the Canadian context and there are similar structures in place in the U.S. and elsewhere. But in addition to these important legal frameworks that define things such as "hate crime", for example, can we not also look at bearing witness in other ways? Can we call on the name of heroes such as Rosa Parks as our "patron saints" of social justice?  Can this be an additional and powerful way of countering the "message" hate groups promote, and can it be a way of saying (and hopefully then following through on) "we will not back down on the ideal of democratic pluralism but neither will we back down on the ideal of social justice. We will hold you and everyone accountable to these ideals."? I mentioned that such an act of re-naming is in part an act of hope. As an act of hope it is by definition aimed at possibilities, not present actuality. Just how powerful a tool of transformation can that hope be, and if we were to do a similar thing in Canadian context today, what might it look like?

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Justice, dialogue and negotiation

There is so much in the news over the last week that has to do with rights and justice that it has been hard to keep up. The ongoing violence in Syria shows no signs of slowing, and the question is being raised by many as to what responsibilities the international community has with regards to the rights of Syrian citizens brutalized by their own government. Then, and one can cannot but see this as a pointed threat to leaders like Assad, an international tribunal has just sentenced former leader of Liberia Charles Taylor to 50 years in prison for his role in promoting violence in nearby Sierra Leone.

Meanwhile the student protests in Montreal continue with anger now not only over the proposed tuition hikes but also over Quebec bill 78, which is seen as a threat to the rights of people who are protesting. Legal challenges to that bill are already coming forward. And in Ontario, a different fight is shaping up over rights and education: this time, between the government's anti-bullying bill 13 (the "Accepting Schools" act) and the Catholic School Board who does not wish to support the bill in its present form or allow students in Catholic schools to form clubs that deal specifically with bullying of LGBTQ students.

The issues that are being raised and played out both in the legal courts and the "court" of public opinion will have a profound effect on the shape of the world and the particular societies with which each of these issues is concerned. The situation in Syria is affecting countless lives, and having ripple effects across the globe. The spread of violence into neighbouring areas is a real threat, and the massacres being perpetrated not only result in astounding loss of life, but also leave deep wounds that fester to breed new violence. More and more a growing section of the international community is learning from history and realizing that atrocities like this have a real political and social cost, even outside of the area in which the violence actually takes place. The debate now is what to do--how can rights be met and justice done in the present situation? The sentencing of Charles Taylor offers one example of a retributive response that comes after the violence. But what about during? How does one resolve the current stalemate about what response to have to the Syrian government's actions among the members of the UN body who are at such odds over the issue?

Likewise, whatever outcome there is to the Montreal student protests, it will have the potential to change the way Quebec itself is shaped, and possibly open wider Canadian debates on issues such as educational rights and accessibility of education in a harsh economic climate, as well as bringing laws aimed at protesters, such as bill 78, to the forefront of discussion. And the outcome of the debate over the "Accepting Schools" act here will have repercussions for all students--whether they are gay, lesbian, straight, bi, trans, queer, or anything else. It will also shape how much leeway religious authorities (not just Catholic, but more widely as well) in charge of publicly funded schooling are granted to shape their school policies in response to government legislation.

There is unfortunately no societal or global consensus on any of these issues. Often there is consensus that "something" needs to be done. But what the details of that "something" should be are where already contentious issues get even more contentious. Nevertheless, part of the process of being a healthy society is being able to talk about things we don't agree about, and to be able to chart an equitable way forward, whether we resolve those differences or not. Our inability to move forward, whether by consensus or some other equitable means, magnifies human suffering in palpable and quantifiable ways. The Syrian massacres and ongoing violence there are at least in part an outcome of a breakdown in social dialogue and negotiation. Negotiation is going on right now in Quebec and Ontario, but whether a socially just outcome will happen--whether we move forward equitably--remains to be seen. Dialogue and negotiation does not guarantee that justice will be done, but it seems a whole lot more likely to happen if real dialogue is allowed. At least that is the thesis I want to pose this week for discussion here. It seems to me there is a link between the process of dialogue and negotiation on the one hand and justice on the other. Where dialogue and negotiation get shut down, injustice is much more likely. And yet so often the greater the issue, the less the two or more sides want to talk with each other. Is it perhaps true that in order to learn how to work greater justice in this world, we need to learn better how to talk and listen with each other, even in cases where we just don't agree?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

"Trials and tribulations" vs. Injustice

How often do we hear the phrase "trials and tribulations"? Although it is certainly not an everyday occurrence for most people, the phrase is pretty common in parlance, especially for those of particular religious backgrounds. Lately, having heard the phrase come up a few times in speech, I have been reflecting on how the concept of "trials" affects our understanding of our lived experience and our perceptions regarding our own social responsibilities. As I reflected, I began to wonder whether, (and then even conclude that) the language of "trials and tribulations" can sometimes function to exclude the possibility of seeing the need for concepts like social justice. "Trials" after all are a way one's character is shaped. They are obstacles to be overcome, not consequences of the actions of wounded people with desperate needs left unmet. I suspect in fact that often when we label something a "trial" instead of an injustice, we run the risk of excusing a socially passive response to wrongs and simply allowing the wrongs to compound.

I'll give an example. When I was 14, myself and one other friend were returning to my house from dropping off another friend at her house, just literally down the street from my own. The neighborhood we lived in at the time was struggling with gang violence, poverty, and a rampant drug trade. It was not late, but being October, it was already dark. Just before we reached my house, my friend and I were attacked by a group of about five teenage or early 20's males. We were lucky in that my house was within sight, and having grown up the proverbial Tomboy, I had done a lot of play fighting. Without getting into all the details, I managed to break away and get to my porch, at which point they scattered when my mother opened the door. My friend and I were bruised and a bit bloody, but had managed to get away before things went much further. But I knew from what they said when they attacked that the intent had been to do a great deal more harm than they actually managed.

At the time, I knew the attack was wrong. I insisted we call the police, but when they did show up hours later, they wouldn't do anything about it. They had bigger problems than dealing with two young girls who had been roughed up but managed to get away. There was a national recession, leading to massive unemployment in my community, and it had broken my community's fragile ability to care economically for itself. Poverty led to despair, and despair led to all sorts of social problems. Added to this mix of poverty and despair were racial tensions that had always been just below the surface and were now, for a variety of reasons, bubbling over again. I suspect all these issues played into that violence. The police didn't even bother to take a statement or open a file. And yet at no time in this process did I, as a 14 year old, really perceive a systematic problem. My understanding was that what happened to me was just another, albeit traumatic, "trial" I had to go through, a "thing" that had happened to me and my friend as individuals. I understand now that this meant I didn't see the people who attacked us as people with their own struggles (however poor their actions were), but as instead I saw them as Problems.

As time went on and I continued living in that neighborhood I began to suspect that something(s) was wrong on a deeper level, however. What happened to me was not just a thing or event, but also a symptom of a much bigger problem. And gradually I came to the understanding that what was wrong was a whole plethora of compounding social injustices that were causing all this (continuing) violence--and that many of those injustices were structured well outside the bounds of my particular community. I also started wondering what had led my attackers to be out that night, and what it was that had filled them with such rage toward two young girls who were complete strangers to them. I began, though still angrily, to see them as people and not Problems. The more I watched and lived, the more I understood that "trials and tribulations," the way I had explained to myself what had happened, didn't cut it as a category for dealing with social issues. Both their lives and mine were wrapped up in compounded layers of social practices and broken relations that had became part of, or were interwoven with, deep and pervasive injustices. Trials are something you live through, to show your mettle. Injustice is something that needs to be confronted and fought systematically, not just for you, but for society as a whole, or it consumes in a way that even "trial by fire" can't.

To my knowledge, I never saw those boys/men again. If I did, I didn't recognize them, and I doubt they would have recognized me. It was dark, the struggle was brief (though violent), and it was just chance that our paths crossed at all. But it is in looking at experiences such as this one that I was eventually able to realize that the "story" or phrase by which I had organized my understanding (this was a "trial" that happened to me) was not permitting me to see systematic issues. Concepts like justice and injustice, however one works them out, are necessary to social flourishing, and do work that concepts like trials and tribulations cannot do. It was experiences like this one that made me want to work on issues of social justice--partly so that what happened to me and my friend happens to fewer (better, zero!) people, but also partly as an understanding that there are two sides to my story, and that, though I can't say with certainty because I don't know who they were, it is likely that the actions of those people who hurt my friend and I were largely products of an unjust society. I still can't excuse their actions, but I have come to an understanding that those actions didn't happen in a vacuum. I came to believe that if we look systematically at issues, we may be able to find ways to prevent contexts where gross injustices are allowed to flourish and nurture violent (re)actions. Instead of seeing such violence as a society "given", just some "thing" that happens, perhaps we need to see it in terms of something gone drastically wrong somewhere; a communally grounded injustice, and not an individual person's "trial"--or simply an individual person's crime, for that matter.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Returning to Work

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Over the past weekend the Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics, out of which this blog is run, co-hosted a conference on Social Justice and Human Rights--the theme this blog has been picking up on. The conference brought people from many different walks of life together; social advocacy workers, academics, judges, lawyers, activists and other people who are simply concerned citizens (or immigrants) to speak about and listen to a wide range of topics on which social justice and human rights are key concerns. As someone who was there, I can say there was a lot of excitement and the feeling for a great deal of potential moving forward.

Now that the conference has happened, though, the question of course is what next? Topics such as were discussed (things like the rights of children, environmental issues, women's rights, aboriginal rights, immigration and movement rights, and disability rights, as well as inter-religious dialogue on the question of human rights in Canada, etc) are too important to simply talk about and then let go. Speaking and listening are only the first steps. Reflecting on that question--what next?--the answer that came to me was everyone returns to their work.

At first such an answer felt too obvious and as though nothing of what was said or done mattered if we all just went back to work. Of course everyone returns to their work. We all have food to put on the table, bills to be paid. Aren't issues of justice and rights bigger than that? Well, yes. But as I continued reflecting, I began to have a deeper understanding of the word work. On the one hand, the majority of people who attended this conference are doing work in their professional lives that is directly concerned in one way or another with the conference themes--hence, returning to work will mean re-engaging with issues of social justice and human rights, now perhaps with an expanded vocabulary of rights, or renewed hope, or heightened urgency, or new ideas for partnering to make important and necessary things happen. Surely that much at least is true. But in addition to that sense of work as one's profession, I thought about a term that I heard conference presenters and participants use again and again in describing what they were doing: calling or vocation. And when I thought through that, I realized that this conference was not so much a "Big Event" or interruption of daily life and work but rather a part of people's work--whether their professional work, or as something they "worked on" outside their professional lives.

Humans are social creatures, I think that much is safe to say. One theme that seemed to run through many of the sessions of which I was a part was an emphasis on relationships, and on healing, strengthening and building relationships in order to have a more just and less violent society. When we, humans, gather together as a group and share food, drink, conversation, work, hope, fear, and open up to each other, relationships are healed, strengthened and built. We all know too that relationships, in order to stay healthy, need that deep but elusive word: work. Coming out of this gathering of people, this conference, we all go back to work. I'm working on it we say when there is a problem we are trying to address, an issue that needs to be resolved. And we are working on issues of social justice and human rights.

What shape does this work take after our gathering? That is what will be sorted out in the coming months. For myself, I know I will continue writing (and reading) on this blog as a forum for discussing issues and, hopefully, potential solutions. I'll be following up in other ways on connections made during the conference, and on trying to distill conference themes into a format that others can engage with. I'll have some more thinking and reflecting to do as I process much of what was said. I know many others are already engaged in similar work. Moving forward while we all return to work, I invite everyone to keep up the conversations begun already and to see how our social abilities (and disabilities) can reflect in positive ways on the work we do for a more just and healthy society.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Disability and Difference

The Following is a Guest Post from Tom Reynolds, Associate Professor of Theology at Emmanuel College

I am caught up in matters of disability as a parent of a son on the autism spectrum.  As an advocate for his “inclusion” on a number of fronts, questions of justice and human rights loom large in my life.  Disability interrupts societal mechanisms of exchange based upon ideologies set up to privilege “normal” bodies.  A big part of my work, then, is to highlight and even intensify the interruption, not as something troubling but as something potentially transformative.  For disability does not simply represent a “body gone wrong,” a problem to be solved physically or remediated by curing.  Nor is disability a problem merely to be included, an anomaly that is somehow “other” and outside, which, according to the good graces of a community “needs” to brought “inside” and given access and power to be involved.  Both of these become ways temporality non-disabled people claim nobly to give something those others—“they”—don’t have, perpetuating an “us-them” or “inside-outside” dualism that retains a paternalistic ethos of exclusion.

It may be true that without accommodation an impairment (physiological difference, bodily condition) becomes a disability (social and environmental experience of restriction that results from limited access, from being considered to have an impairment).  However, outside preconceived programs and expectations fueled by dominant visions of what is “normal”, people with disabilities are persons (equal) with gifts (differences) to offer.  Insofar as our communities cultivate relationships of interdependence and respect and friendship between all participants, together we open access in ways far beyond what is often taken for “inclusion”.

In my view, “access” is a continually negotiated process between people with disabilities and non-disabled persons.  Accessibility aims to treats all as equal AND different.  That is, as equal without therefore being made over and assimilated into the image of what is taken by dominant visions as “normal”—which effectively erases difference—and as different without therefore being marginalized as “deviant” and “abnormal”—effectively denying equality.

In the end, disability is a gift that can teach and empower communities.  Disability is about difference, a feature of communities that fosters the diversity, the plurality of life.  This is important to stress first of all because such difference is often stigmatized and excluded by ableist ideologies.  Second, it is important because disability itself is not singular, but diverse.  The lives of people with disabilities are as varied and different as the lives of those without disabilities.  And all are in fact part of who "we" are.  The upshot is that full participation of people with disabilities is not an option for just communities, but rather a defining feature.

--Tom Reynolds

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Musings on cultural transformation and philosophy

Again building off our topic and discussion from last week, I want to pick up on the theme of philosophy and cultural transformation. I want to open with a quote from a philosopher writing on the theme of cultural transformation with which we have been concerned. She says, "Social justice cannot be achieved without a cultural transformation, the nature of which we can barely conceive."

Luce Irigaray (for that is the philosopher in question, writing in her book Je, tu, nous) hits on something important here: justice can't happen without cultural transformation, and the transformation required is so far-reaching that we can only "barely conceive" it. Whether or not one agrees with the specifics of what transformation Irigaray believes is needed, one can sense the appropriateness of her comment. Social justice is irrevocably linked to culture and cultural norms (among other things) and therefore in order to be able to "achieve" it where it does not exist or has gone awry, we must effect a cultural transformation.

And yet notions of social justice don't appear out of nowhere. Rather, they are born out of the matrix of culture and cultural norms, legal structures, and history as we tell it. So it seems to me that we have a circle of sorts here: ideas of what is "socially just" arise out of our context and are articulated by us in ways that we think fit with society's present needs. Of course there are competing understandings because the societal context is not unified. And the "present" doesn't last, so we are always, it seems, stuck playing catch-up. The ideas of social justice that came out of our cultural context don't fit what we need--transformation is called for.

Irigaray uses the phrase "we can barely conceive" the cultural change necessary, but "barely" is better than "can't". How do we do it, though? Philosophy as a field and a practice is only one contributing voice (albeit hopefully an important one) to notions of social justice, as we discussed last week. But social justice relies on other conceptions that philosophy and philosophers have spent a good deal of time and energy trying to address--ideas like justice, the good, and increasingly, truth. And so, thinking about such conceptions I was reminded of a second quote from philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty's preface to the Phenomenology of Perception: "philosophy is not the reflection of a pre-existing truth, but, like art, the act of bringing truth into being."

Now there's a conception--no pun intended! Bringing truth into being! Philosophy doesn't have a "corner" on truth, but it can and does offer several important perspectives on truth that help "bring it into being"--that is, help make it come alive as a defining and important concept in our lives and contexts and politics and actions. And if I had to make a wager as to what might spark the kind of "barely conceivable" cultural transformation for social justice Irigaray and others hope and work for, it would be a new and deeper understanding of truth and how truth matters, what impact truth has in our particular societal contexts today. Truth can seem like an abstract concept without much import, until one begins to notice a lack of it. Increasingly it seems, people are beginning to make the connection between untruth and injustice. Much of the deep political and social unrest that has swept the globe in the last year was set off by a desire to end social oppression or injustice in various forms, but again and again as the revolutions and protests and battles have ensued, the issue of truth becomes louder. Protesters in many different areas protesting many different things have claimed that in order to maintain unjust circumstances, a veil of lies is used by those with the power (whether through governmental or economic means) to do so. They are calling for the "ugly truth" to come out, but they are also calling for a new social truth to redefine the culture and cultural norms that allowed such a level of injustice to flourish in the first place.

That's also, incidentally, exactly why I find it very striking that Merleau-Ponty draws a connection between philosophy's ability to bring truth into being and art's ability to do so analogously. (I would love to write more on that, but it would be another post entirely.) On the perspective he offers, both philosophy and art are understood of as creative processes that bring something vital to society into being. Perhaps viewing philosophy as a creative process undertaken to continually bring concepts vital for cultural transformation into being is a good place to start when we look at the question, what can philosophy do to contribute to social justice?

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Philosophy and the question: what can I do?

One of the questions that was raised in the comments during the last post seemed to warrant a post of its own, though I will be extrapolating a bit. I spent quite some time formulating a comment in response to the exchange between Mad Professor and Bob Sweetman (only to have that carefully crafted response suddenly erased beyond recall by a computer malfunction...) but in writing it, I realized that there are some tensions at play in our posting here that are well worth addressing.

Part of my reflecting on this took place while I was away at a family event in Detroit, which area I am originally form. The case surrounding Trayvon Martin that we were discussing last week is, with good reason, a major topic of discussion in Detroit and the tension was palpable. I, like both the Mad Professor and Bob seem to be saying, "get" the response of anger and disgust.  It is certainly where I started when I began looking into this case, and those feelings still exist. But, particularly as I re-entered my old home grounds in Michigan, I also wondered, what can I do? What can I as a person do in response to this and to stop things like this from happening again? What can we as a community do? And then, reading Bob's comments, I asked myself, who am I when I ask 'what can I do'? and likewise, who is this we that I am speaking of?

Identity is a complex issue that could not possibly be sorted out in the space of a blog entry, but one large portion of who both "I" and "we" am/are is a philosopher, or a community of philosophers, theologians, other theorists and activists. That's largely (though not exclusively) who reads this blog. I, Allyson the individual, could go and join protests and carry signs, and write letters to the appropriate authorities on this issue as well as on other equally pressing ones here in Canada. But I am also a trained philosopher, with a vocation to act as one. So what do I do in that capacity?

This is one of the major questions that faces us in the community in which "we" exist, and I think (correct me if I'm wrong, Bob) it was part of what you were trying to get it in your comments on the previous post. "We" who are in this particular community are trained to think in terms of theory, to look for the "bigger questions" that lie behind or underneath whatever topic is at hand. That is, in a sense, part of our job. But we have to be able to do that in a way that matters to the matter at hand (whatever particular issue or set of issues it is that we are addressing.) Bob, you wrote if our conceptual analyses are merely reflective of what is and never transformative or at least potentially transformative, what good are we? That's a question worth asking. It seems quite clear to me that it is transformation that this situation with the Trayvon Martin case requires. And there are many other places and issues that also require transformation: societal transformation, political transformation, ideological transformation--even personal transformation. So when we are faced with issues that rightfully make us react with deep anger and disgust, how do we, in our capacity as academics or activists with a theoretical bent, begin to dig into the work of transformation necessary?

I have some ideas involving more interaction between academics and activists, and working in an interdisciplinary manner to get more input from many different parties who come from different perspectives. This would, however, have to be undertaken in the hope and belief that it will help ensure theory is grounded in experience arising out of practice and practice is grounded in reflection on theory, and that this double grounding is a continual cycle that impacts both how we theorize and what we do. But what are other's thoughts, speaking in the capacity of a trained academic or activist (or both?)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Law, Justice, and Rights

Sometimes when reading the news, a particular story jumps out at you. And while violence in the headlines is nothing new, this story hit me harder than many: Trayvon Martin, a Florida teen, is shot dead on his way back from buying a snack, for what sounds like just being out and "looking suspicious" to the "neighborhood watch" person who shot him. Racial profiling or prejudices for the shooting have been alleged, and the shooter was not arrested by the police when they arrived. He claims he acted in self defense, but from phone logs (911 logs as well as Martin's own final phone conversation) and other evidence, that does not appear to be the case. The shooting happened almost a month ago (I remember reading about it then with horror too) and has only now begun to gain enough attention and outrage that finally the federal Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has opened an inquiry into the shooting and police response.

That the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department has gotten involved is telling, and gives me the hope that this might finally be taken seriously. I could write more on the probable issues that will come out in the investigation and my own outrage, but given the scope of this particular blog (on social justice and human rights), I'll be focusing instead on the legal issues that currently surround the case, and on how those legal issues created an easier environment for this to happen.

One of the things that has come into focus in this case is a law in Florida (with similar ones in other states) which allows a person who feels "threatened" in a public place to use deadly force in "self defense" before even attempting to avoid or exit a confrontation. This law sets the right to self-defense against the rights (for example) to life and to trial by jury if accused of a crime (though here the victim was only "accused" by his shooter, not even the law--he was committing no crime--and the shooter was in fact told by the police when he phoned them not to get involved). So aside from dealing with a case of vigilantism, which should be prosecuted as such, perhaps we need to take a look at laws that allow greater latitude for vigilantism to occur.

Opponents of the law in question argue that it leads to cases just like this (what they call "shoot first and ask later"), while supporters of the law say it is necessary for people to feel safe and to be able to protect themselves without fear of being jailed. It seems to me, however, that such a law does in fact disregard the rights of the person who is perceived by a potential shooter as a threat. Who gets to adjudicate what constitutes a threat? Where is the use of force justified, and to what degree? How do we look at the rights of all in society, in such a way that all are protected and respected--including those who are falsely perceived as being a threat? Bringing society to a point where profiling and racial prejudices are no longer part of people's consciousness would be a huge step, but in the meantime, perhaps we need to look at the laws that give the impression that knee-jerk violence against another person based only on suspicion is somehow legal or "appropriate".

Monday, March 12, 2012

Imagining and One Year Later

As I write this post on the 11th of March, (though by the time I finished writing it, it's now the 12th) I am reminded where I was a year ago when I first heard about the earthquake and resulting tsunami that struck parts of Japan and wrecked havoc with the Fukushima nuclear plant. I was sitting at my kitchen table trying to finish the last bits of my dissertation, when a friend called me and said, "check the news.": three words that shouldn't be so frightening, and yet when spoken in certain contexts, are deeply so. I remember asking "why, what's happened?" with my imagination already supplying several different scenarios, each worse than the one previous. He struggled for a moment to put into words what he had heard, and finally simply said, "tsunami in Japan. It's pretty bad." From his tone and lack of other words, I knew that "pretty bad" meant "indescribably awful."

He was right. As I watched the news unfold, I too could not find words, much less actions, given my geographic location on the other side of the world. Language failed me, and where language failed me, the ability to conceptualize what was happening and what I and my household could do in response was difficult. I instinctively felt the situation required a social response as part of an ethical imperative, but I was unsure what to do, and what it might mean, for example, to stand in solidarity with the people affected. Could I even do so, is such a thing even possible? How could we be part of, or support, a social response? What would such a response be?

We managed to work out what small immediate ways we could help, but they all fall flat in the face of what began as a natural disaster that triggered a human-made disaster (with the nuclear plant failure) becoming together, by the sheer breadth of their impact, a societal and environmental disaster.Over the past year, there has been dialogue and debate over how best to mitigate the effects of the radiation released, how best to help those in need, how best too rebuild communities that were wiped out--and along with the debate, there has been necessary action and material help. But the need for social response and the attendant ethical imperative is ongoing.

It's that ongoing need I wanted to talk about here--not, for once, on a practical level, since there are people far more expert than I, who can weigh in on the practicalities of getting food, shelter, and comfort to those affected, and I don't have the scientific or technological expertise to really put forward any suggestions on how to deal with the effects from a nuclear meltdown. I'm a philosopher, and one who deals with narrative and ethics and relationships and language. But I think that talking about just such things along with the practical necessities of support and clean up, are important too, because without such ongoing conversation, we're truly shooting in the dark. In a world where global relations are deepening, even practical considerations like supplying food and blankets are affected by abstract conceptions and ideologies. Part of being able to talk about social ethics (always grounded in a view of how to plan and act and put in place structures that allow positive social ethics to emerge) is being able to think about ethical action in the face of the unthinkable, whether that unthinkable is due to human action or not. And appropriate ethical action requires thinking and understanding, speaking and listening (and hearing) cross-culturally, before, as, and after one acts.

So how do we think the unthinkable, where does that begin?  Is it perhaps with imagining in order to sort out appropriate action?  And, since this is a question about social  ethics and not simply personal ethics, how do we undertake such imagining in a social setting, as a socially ethical response to situations of dire human and environmental need?

Monday, March 05, 2012

Disability Rights and the Heart of Human Rights

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The Following is a Guest Post by Deborah Stienstra, Professor of Disability Studies at University of Manitoba

On February 10, 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a women with intellectual disabilities could testify on her own behalf as the victim in a case of sexual assault. By a majority vote, the Court agreed that she understood what it meant to tell the truth even though she could not articulate what truth was. She and many other women and men with disabilities challenge society to extend our understandings of individual human rights, personhood and autonomy. In this ruling we are taught that courts need to recognize that the competence required to bear witness to one’s own experience is something those often labeled ‘not competent’ have. We are also taught about the importance of disability rights. Disability rights take us beyond simple assertions that individuals in their differences need to be accommodated. While accommodation and removing barriers to women and men with disabilities in society are important steps to ensuring inclusion, disability rights require us to go beyond inclusion to transformation of ourselves and our societies.

Disability takes us to the heart of humanity and human rights. How can human rights be available to those who cannot speak, cannot move their bodies without supports, and need assistance for every aspect of human life? How do societies reflect the diversity of human bodies and ways of doing things? How do human rights move from including people with disabilities into able-bodied societies towards transformed societies that enable multiple ways of doing things, all of which are part of humanity?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Geneva, Canada, and the Rights of Children


The following is a Guest Post by Kathy Vandergrift, Chair, Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children:

While Canada’s Prime Minister was in China promoting trade and raising human rights issues in China, I was in Geneva to inform the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child about major gaps in the implementation of children’s rights in Canada.  Is Canada a violator of children’s rights?  Most people think of less developed countries as places where children’s rights are violated – not in Canada.  Surely not as bad as China  – not bad enough to go to the UN.  

Human rights treaties apply to all countries alike.  That is one of their benefits.  The Convention on the Rights of the Child, for example, incorporates the principle of progressive realization.  Nations who ratify the treaty are obligated to improve the conditions for children, based on available resources – and not slip backward.  In several areas, conditions for children are not progressing in Canada.  Evidence of inequitable treatment of children is a concern in Canada as much as in China.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Syria and the UN General Assembly Vote

It's hard to know what to write about over the last few days, since so much relating to social justice and human rights has been in the news. One thing that stuck out, though, was the new UN vote that took place just yesterday, condemning the violence in Syria . This vote--which was taken in the General Assembly instead of the Security Council, where the last bill failed--passed by a strong majority, but has no real legal power.

With the violence in Syria reaching new levels, it's small wonder that there is movement to try to condemn the situation and push for change. Yesterday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accused the Syrian government of likely committing crimes against humanity, and there has been a groundswell of support for people affected by the violence, with one example being Britain recently deciding to send a good deal of food rations. Where there have been such crimes, as appears very likely from the news we have been getting across a variety of media sources, we cannot ethically do nothing. Having said that, though, who is "we" and what would constitute the proper "something" to do?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Economics, Justice, and human rights

The economy has been on the mind of many lately, what with the federal budget due out soon (amid dire warning it will be rough), talk of more economic sanctions on Iran, backlash over the Keystone XL pipeline decision, and Harper's visit to China to talk trade all being prominent topics in the media recently. And there has been a good deal of worry that the focus on economics (particularly with Harper's visit to China) will result in concerns of human rights being put on the back burner or ignored altogether. With China's recent veto on the UN resolution regarding the violence in Syria, and Prime Minister Harper's Beijing visit to talk about energy and trade coming so shortly afterward, the concern does not seem unwarranted.

But one thing I wanted to raise in addition to talking about human rights, which we have discussed on this blog several times, is the relation of economic choices, economic practices, and justice. "The economy" seems often like it is a huge machine (perhaps a broken one, or one spiraling out of control) but when we really think about it, the economy is a system of relationships. It is a social phenomenon. Some (many?) of those relationships are exploitative--as we are hearing about the ongoing allegations concerning Apple and Foxconn making exploitative use of their workers. But nevertheless, the economy is based on humans engaged in socially mediated practices of an economic character. And when speaking of relationships, normative language makes sense. Whether or not the parties involved pay attention to it, there are ethical concerns that come along with human relationships.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Patterns in violence against women and girls

It would be nearly impossible to be reading Canadian news over the past few days and not run across two high-profile cases of violence involving women or girls. The most recent, the much watched Shafia trial over the murder of Zainab, Sahar and Geeti Shafia and their stepmother Rona Amir Mohammed has generated heated condemnation for the three family members convicted of killing these women and girls (the youngest of the murdered was only 13). Some additionally point out the fact that at least twice some of the children sought help from authorities before they were murdered, but nothing came of the girls' attempts. Now, we could get into the debate over whether it is better to call these deaths "honor killings" or "murder" or "domestic violence" or even "femicide" but one thing that I think is worth examining is how frequently the family's national origin and religion are mentioned in reports of the crime--so much so that the Afghanistan Embassy issued a public statement condemning the murders and noting that neither Afghan legal standards nor Islam would condone such actions.

Perhaps it is natural that in the shock of being faced with this violence, many writers want to distance Canada and Canadian society from being somehow involved. It is a bulwark of Canadian culture that women and girls are as equally human and have equal rights as men and boys, so violence that is gender-based against females should not happen here. But while reading all these statements and reports, I could not help noticing one of the other threads of headline news: the Pickton Inquiry, which is currently examining how it was that it took the RCMP and other police agencies so long to stop Robert Pickton from murdering so many women, year after year.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Meeting and Trust

Today is a gathering of First Nations leaders to discuss present problems and future possibilities, particularly with regard to the relationship of First Nations with the Canadian government. Prime Minister Steven Harper is attending along with Governor General David Johnston.

Moving forward in a way that respects the rights, traditions and needs of First Nations people is necessary for addressing issues such as education, poverty and housing that face many living on as well as off reserves. Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo spoke about this need for moving forward while respecting the needs and rights of First Nations people, but he also spoke first about the need to "repair trust" before (or perhaps as) real progress is made. In his words, "To rebuild the partnership, we must rebuild the trust on which it must be based."

Monday, January 16, 2012

On habits and environmental justice

I recently read an article that discussed the reaction of certain types of fish to higher levels of carbon dioxide in their water. It seems these fish react to significantly higher levels of carbon dioxide in a similar way to how humans react to alcohol. They exhibited disorientation, lack of coordination, even disastrously bad choices like swimming toward predators instead of away from them. The article points out too that humans are currently effecting this kind of change on the oceans, adding carbon dioxide to the waters, though current levels have not yet reached the levels the scientists conducting this particular study were testing at.

Reading this got me thinking about the intersection of questions of environmental justice and human habits.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Behind the Rhetoric of Human Rights


Guest Post by Kathy Vandergrift, Chair, Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children:

In one week Canada’s political leaders celebrated Vaclav Havel as a champion of human rights and denounced Kim Jung-il for violating human rights. At the same time Canada’s Justice Minister dismissed as irrelevant human rights concerns about Bill C-10 and the Minister of Immigration dared anyone to raise a Charter challenge to arbitrary changes he announced for citizenship requirements. Bill C-10 violates obligations Canada has under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, one of the most widely endorsed human rights treaties that protect persons with the least political power in any country. And one might expect our government to check if proposed laws comply with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms before adopting them rather than challenging citizens to bring a lawsuit – especially after the government cut any funding for expensive Charter challenges.

At a deeper level, rights language in political rhetoric reveals widely different understandings of what human rights are and why they are important. Some assume international norms apply for dictators in undeveloped countries, but not in Canada.Others use the term to mean civil rights, but dismiss any suggestion that economic and social rights are equally important if we are going to build a rights-respecting culture.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Human rights, human wrongs

As the first post of the new year, and in honor of our upcoming conference on which the blog will be thematically focused over the next few months, I wanted to raise the issue of the relationship of concepts of human rights to concepts of injustice.

I raise this question for discussion because I have noticed that talk of "human rights" most often rises in response to human wrongs--to perceived injustices. I put the emphasis on human wrongs here, because when natural disasters with heavy human (and environmental) tolls occur, the typical response centers on alleviating human (and environmental) suffering without much talk of human rights. A terrible earthquake can have the same effect as a war in denying the necessities of life to those in the area: clean water, food, shelter, etc. But when a lack of food or resources is caused by war or some other human-made disaster, the response of sending aid often is paired with rights-language. The human rights of people in the area have been violated by having those, or other, necessities denied them as a consequence of human action or inaction.