Friday, November 30, 2012

Why won't you change your mind?

Did we really have a summer??

Academy B & B Graduate Room
I watched an episode of Lang & O'Leary Exchange on CBC last night. An item they discussed was the threat of a strike among elementary school teachers in Ontario. (I use the word discussed loosely; it was actually a quarrel between the two on their diametrically opposed views on unions. O'Leary stood by his conviction that unions are evil and should be banned; Lang defended their efficacy on the basis that there is no other way to prevent worker exploitation other than a banding together along with the power to withdraw labour.)
            Clearly, neither of them was likely to change his/her mind. The “righteous mind” is seldom swayed by reasonable arguments.
            Which takes me to a useful tool for rethinking how we arrive at moral stances and how these stances—so often set in stone, apparently—do and don't change. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt tackles a very tough but highly relevant subject. I'm barely into it, but I'm already sensing that I've gone about my attempts at moral suasion (when they've arisen) in a fruitless and wrong-headed way.
            Think of us as having two parts. One is intuition/emotion (the affective domain, if you will) and the other is reason (the cognitive domain). Historically, according too Haidt, reason has been given too much credit as being the birthplace of our moral positioning. In other words, we've assumed that having been given the facts, we apply them and arrive at logical, rational positions.
            According to Haidt, current research shows that moral positions are gained in the affective domain and cognition (reasoning) has the primary task of justifying the position by rallying whatever favourable evidence can be conjured or found. Only seldom is change in initial positions observable as a consequence of reasoned argument.
            Here's a typical Haidt scenario. A researcher gathers 30 students in a room and asks them to make a judgement on the following situation: a family's pet dog is hit by a car and killed. In order to avoid being wasteful, they cook and eat the dog. What do you think of that? Most respondents assert quite strongly that it is both wrong and revolting. When the logic that a) we eat animals all the time, b) that the dog is dead and c) will feel no pain nor indignity and d) that there is no law against eating dogs, the respondents don't typically change their position, but instead, try to justify it with reasons like, “Well, it's an indignity to the pet.” Some will simply say, “I don't know why it's wrong; it just is.”
            The revulsion against eating dog, let alone pet dogs, is deeply engrained in our affective beings. We cannot be rational about an act like the one portrayed in the test.
            It's not surprising that some of us are politically conservative for life and others are equally social-democratic. The underlying orientation is not generally won through rational analysis of the two positions; most of us can can trace back to the beginnings of our “leaning” where we're likely to find a parent and/or teachers who leaned the same way so that our stance politically is all bound up with emotional attachments and revulsions dating back to early days.
            Most men lean left or right in concert with their fathers, unless they hate them, in which case they may obstinately demonstrate their feelings by leaning the other way . . . in defiance.
            The quarrels about the presence or exclusion of gays in churches have by now become classic in the story of the Christian Church. On the one side—the “liberal” side—a litany of reasons for treating gays evenhandedly has had virtually no effect on the “conservative” side's stance that a gay lifestyle cannot be scripturally supported, is therefore sin and has no place in the communion of Christians. According to Haidt's view, I would say that this deviation of moral stances cannot be resolved no matter how many and forcefully the reasons on either side are trumpeted. The division is embedded in the affective domains, the centres of emotion and intuition, i.e. the relatively stable moral predispositions of the people involved.
            The quarreling around contentious issues is a clamouring for reasons in support of an exceedingly stable position.
            Accepting Haidt's contention that “intuition precedes reason” should help us mitigate the rancorous divisions we live with, both religious and political. At the political level, governing parties should take initiative in fostering affective relationships among all legislators; it's through relationship and relationship alone that good governance might finally become a reality. Imagine a question period that is amiable and courteous, an opposition working at the same problems as the government and a government happy for their help because they have developed the appropriate intuitive and emotional trust of each other’s intentions.
♫Wouldn't it be nice♫
            Regarding the quarrel in churches over the inclusion or exclusion of people living a gay lifestyle, suffice it to say that the end result of the arguing won't lead to unity if Haidt is right. That's been amply demonstrated already. It hasn't been that long since gays were given tacit permission to be openly gay. As time passes, the liberal viewpoint will eventually dominate given that youth are growing up in an environment of greater tolerance of non-conventional sexual orientation.
Meanwhile, there remain two alternatives: church members and congregations can separate ties and regroup with those who share the same moral stance on the subject, or members and congregations could agree to disagree on the particular matter and focus on those things on which they share intuitive and emotional common ground.
            That, too, would be nice.
            Meanwhile, I suggest you don't waste your time with Lang and O'Leary Exchange if it's enlightenment you're looking for. Intuition precedes reason, remember.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Fish 'n Brewis 'n Vereniki

It’s the 30th Anniversary of the Dictionary of Newfoundland English

“What’s that,” you ask? “Are you sure that’s English ə-tall?” 

Wha’ dat y’ say? Yer some crooked t’day, me by! Bin spiken yer fish ‘n brewis again, me by?

I’ve been “ta Newfland,” and can attest to the colourful nature of the dialect, but can’t half understand some of it, so the Dictionary of Newfoundland English is going into my suitcase the next time I visit.

I grew up in a place with similar characteristics. Where Newfoundland patter draws heavily on origins in the British Isles, mine is more a mixture of a Low German that was the day to day language of my people before and after immigration in the late 19th Century, the Ukrainian and Jewish neighbourhoods adjacent to them for a hundred years in Russia and the gradual incorporation of English words borrowed to cover cases unfamiliar to my people’s history. 

Take Vereniki. We pronounced it Vren’-ə-tje and grew up thinking it was ours. Turns out it’s a mispronounced варе́ники, the Ukrainian word for a stuffed dumpling. But we made it ours by varying the contents of the dumplings, smothering them in cream gravy and plums and eating them with “Mennonite Farmer Sausage.” (I was recently asked how many Mennonite farmers had to be ground up to make a tonne of sausages!)

Borscht, similarly, became our word although traceable to the Ukrainian борщ.

There was a time when Low German and English were freely mixed in speech, a practice still persisting in more conservative Mennonite villages in Canada. Not every word is easily translatable, like Daugnikjs, for instance. Made up of Dauge—to amount to something—and nikjs (nix), it had no handy English equivalent, so mothers were apt to improvise with “You little Daugnikjs!” 

But it worked the other way ‘round as well, particularly where no German equivalent of an English word was to hand: “Dau mutt here somewheres jewesz ən loophole senne!” (There’s certainly got to be a loophole here somewhere.”) 

I confess I’m often torn between the “correctness” guaranteed by preserving the language as it was and the linguist’s understanding that all aspects of language--including grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.-- are fluid, and that the way to find out how to say a thing is to listen to how people commonly say it. I still balk, however, when I hear the pronoun “I” used in the objective case, as in “John went out with Jenny and I,” or at the splitting of an infinitive, as in “To quickly escape was mandatory.” 

Likewise, mixing languages seems to me to be either snobbish or boorish, depending on whether the foreign word used is French or Low German: de rigueur is a language snob’s fashionable and Klutz a language-boors clumsy person.

One thing, though, language is endlessly interesting. My linguistics prof posed a question that still bugs me: “Can you think without words?” he asked. In other words, is conceptualization bound by language such that a person who owns only a small vocabulary can’t possibly think loftily. Or a person who doesn’t know the jargon of science can’t think scientifically. An intriguing conundrum.

We ate at Velma’s in St. John’s. It’s touted as the place to go for authentic Newfoundland fare. I passed up on the cod cheeks and opted for fish and brewis with Figgy Duff for dessert. You may protest that cod don't actually have cheeks, but then, chickens don't have balls either.

There were no Vereniki on the menu, me by.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Remembrance Day 2012 - A Guest Blog.

Morning Sun at Little Manitou

 Remembrance Day, 2012: Today was a travel day, so I spent about 250 kilometres of the drive listening to Rex Murphy's Cross Country Check-up . . . on remembering. When I got home, I had the letter below from good friends Hugh and Ethel. 
 (My words on Remembrance Day were recorded on You Tube a few years ago, and they can be revisited at

 Meanwhile, I share with you Hugh and Ethel's letter, which says it so well. Hugh hopes it will give me an idea for a blog, but I can't think why I'd rewrite this wonderful reflection!)

"Hi George,

Ethel and I were listening to CBC while we were driving today and there was quite a bit of talk about Remembrance Day.  That listening gave rise to some thought and some discussion.  We thought we'd share some of it with you in case it might stimulate you to do a blog on the topic. 

There is a subtle twist in thinking involved in Remembrance Day.  The implicit question in the usual discourse around Remembrance Day is: "Aren't you grateful for the sacrifice those wonderful men and women made so that you can live in freedom?" 

Yes, I am moved by the memory of those whom I knew who lost their lives or came home with bodies that were crippled from the effects of war.  I remember as a teenager going to St. Boniface Hospital to visit a neighbor who was a veteran of the First World War.  He had been gassed and spent the rest of his life with lungs that didn't serve him well.  I inquired as to where I would find him only to be told that he had died.  I remember Jack, our close neighbor, who came through the depression with his family and was so happy with the meals that he was served when he joined the army.  He was wounded when he landed with the Canadians at Dieppe and was taken back to England where he died of wounds.  I remember the pain his family suffered while he suffered in England and then was taken from them.  I remember church services when we moved to Winnipeg; each Sunday morning part of the list of names of those who were in the Services was read out.  Then there were the Sunday mornings in which other words were added after the names: Missing in action; Missing and presumed dead; Killed in action.  I remember the young man from our farm community who was in Hong Kong when the Japanese arrived.  Rather than be taken prisoner, he was last seen swimming out to sea where he perished. 

But the ones I remember constitute only a very small part of the human cost of war.  There was the total cost in Allied lives during WWIi, the military personnel on the other side who also paid the supreme price, the civilians on both sides who lost limbs or lives, and the millions who were considered enemies of the state or potential enemies of the state who were transported to interment camps or to death chambers.  And that was only WWII.  The total cost of war is horrific; it is not to be glorified. 

Yes, I remember.  But my first emotion is not gratitude.  It is closer to something like anger.  Whose purposes were served by the deaths of these young men?  What has been done to the thinking of humanity that it does not rise up against this senseless activity that we call war?  Why do those who have risen to power in government think that it is appropriate for them to expect that young men and women will be willing to die for causes that should have been settled in other ways? 

Yes, there is disagreement and conflict among human beings.  But rather than perpetuating the cycle of violence that leads to war, humanity must learn other means of problem solving.  Violence in all its forms is inappropriate.  Violence needs to be identified and named for what it is.  Question period in the House of Commons perpetuates verbal violence.  Violence in professional sports is a teaching tool.  The use of physical pain as a means of discipline in training children in the home and elsewhere teaches children that violence is appropriate.  We speak loudly against bullying but validate it when we cheer violent behavior in hockey and other sports and spend time watching violent shows on television.   

Humanity will take a huge step forward when it stops responding emotionally to provocation and works at identifying the real problem so that solutions that are acceptable to everyone can be sought.  If we could step beyond irrational motivations for conflict such as nationalism or our sense of superiority and recognize the equal humanity of everyone, we might begin to reduce violence.

Training is important and the best place to start that is in the home and then the school.  Parenting that focuses on problem solving rather than punishment does much more to get children on the side of working together.  There are parenting methods that help in this direction.  Communities benefit when these methods are applied also in schools and in the community in general. 

I hope that we as the human race are moving in the direction of peace.  The cost of war is too high and war is too dangerous.  A fraction of the cost of the US military could bring prosperity to the world.  The loss of life can no longer be counted by the number of military personnel who die.  The cost in civilian casualties, lost lives, maimed bodies, mental and emotional wounding, destroyed infrastructure, and cultural destruction all are part of the cost of war.  The costs of war are costs to both sides and they impact the whole world. 

There are much better ways. We are a long way from ending war.  But surely that is a goal that we might all commit ourselves and our society to pursue.  This Remembrance Day, let us remember those who were caught in fighting wars with respect and honor them and their memory. But let us not use their lost lives as a way of glorifying war with its destruction. 

George, thanks for listening, [if that's what we are doing when we read].  It probably did me good to give expression to this concern.  I don't know what you might do with this other than file it.  But it might be grist for some morning coffee break mill.

Hugh & Ethel [who read a draft and made helpful comments].

Friday, November 02, 2012

Gimme, Gimme, Gimme

Reach for you guns!

Land of living skies
Gideons International (Bible distribution) just sent me a 2013 calendar. So did PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). This week, I also got address labels and/or appeals for donations from:
*     Handicap International (Children injured by landmines),
*     Souls Harbour Rescue Mission (Christmas Dinner for Homeless),
*     Council of Canadians (Don’t Frack with our Water),
*     Operation Smile (Cleft lip and palette surgery in third world countries),
*     Speroway (Christmas for starving children),
*     Smile Train (another cleft palette/lip surgery organization in third world countries),
*     2012 Annual Christmas Seal Campaign (Lung diseases),
*     Nature Conservancy (Natural habitat preservation in Canada), and
*     Inter Pares (Canadian social justice organization).
I applaud the work of all of them. I wish I could give them each a million dollars. At the same time, I’m bugged by the fact that one of the ways of raising funds is by selling my address to other causes so that my mailbox is always full, especially at this time of year.  
               "Big deal," you might say. "How hard can it be to recycle all that paper?"
               That’s no problem. I generally open the envelopes, take out the pieces that identify me and shred them and dump the rest into the recycling basket unshredded.
        It’s not that either.
               A bigger problem is that the photos of homeless men and women, children in rags with cleft lips and palettes, abused animals and children missing limbs all cry out with such loud voices for help that I feel guilt every time I consign one more appeal to the shredder.
               There’s something wrong with the entire picture. How much did PETA spend, for instance, to mail me a calendar I absolutely don’t need? How much does it cost to make up a sheet of address labels and a bunch of stickers and mail them to me? If I sent them each $10.00, would that cover their cost?
               It’s all done on margin. I once did a calculation of the economics of a charitable lottery. Although I didn’t know how much was paid to the company for running that fundraiser, the cost of the prizes (estimated) could easily be compared with the number and price of the tickets. By a conservative estimate, a purchase of a ticket by me for $100.00 would have netted the charity no more than $20.00! Probably less. (I might have won a house I couldn't afford to live in.)
               Canadians my age donate an average of $592.00 to charity annually. The median annual donation is $200.00, which means that most donating is done by a minority of Canadians while a whole host give virtually nothing, or at least, very little. There are obviously good reasons for low donations among the poor, that goes without saying, but in churches, the statistics that suggest that 80% of donations come from 20% of members and v.v. is a telling statistic. A few are generous, more are not.
               In my humble opinion, health research, nature conservancy, animal protection, etc. should be funded through our tax system. The progressive income tax and the goods and services taxes are probably the most equitable ways to distribute the load among the population. Take the Kidney Foundation, for instance. Why should the work they do require them to go through a wasteful fundraising process to get the necessary dollars to carry on their work? Why should any charitable organization feel forced to bribe me into giving money by sending me address labels and calendars that I absolutely don’t want in order to “guilt” me into giving.
               Let’s raise our taxes a bit and look after each other the way we ought to.