Seeing through the glass darkly

All political movements are like this — we are in the right, everyone else is in the wrong. The people on our own side who disagree with us are heretics, and they start becoming enemies. With it comes an absolute conviction of your own moral superiority. There’s oversimplification in everything, and a terror of flexibility.
– Doris Lessing

As I sit down to write today, news is breaking of a Trans-Pacific Partnership deal being reached. I haven’t heard any of the details yet but, as a general rule, I’m glad to hear that Canada manages to be part of such things. For all that we are, geographically, the second largest country in the world, being dwarfed as we are in all kinds of ways by the inherent power of our southern neighbour, I tend to think it is essential that we align ourselves with those who would create a huge trading block incorporating nations which account for 40% of the world’s GDP.

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What I should find surprising (the fact that I don’t has everything to do with what I believe I understand about election campaigns) is that anyone, even the NDP, would be willing to adopt the protectionist stance that says “no” to anything that, even potentially, affects any element of Canadian industry (the two big ones, in this case, being supply managed dairy and the auto industry) at the risk of being excluded from what would be the largest trade agreement in the history of the world!.

I’m sympathetic to those who might be affected negatively by any deal but to simply walk away from the table because of that is, to my mind, the worst of ideology triumphing over common sense. At the same time, I choose to believe that the positions being taken by the three leaders reflect the ground they have staked out as election day approaches. Stephen Harper presents himself as the protector of a robust Canadian economy that is the result of his decade of responsible economic management (so the line goes). Tom Mulcair insists that any TPP deal is entirely inappropriate, having been conducted in secret to the detriment of Canadians in the middle of an election. Hence, the government has no mandate to conclude a deal of any kind. Justin Trudeau takes the middle road, unwilling to condemn the deal without seeing the details but assuring all concerned that he wouldn’t let anyone ride roughshod over the country.

I’ve arrived at a place, personally, where the sheer length of this campaign has finally exhausted me. I don’t know how much more outrage or exaggeration I can take. In my last few blogs, I have circled around the topic of polarization in Canadian politics and this blog, hopefully, will be my last word on the subject for a while. For those who continue to believe that polarization isn’t an increasingly prevalent issue in this election, ask yourself how many careful, rational discussions you’ve had with anyone going into these last two weeks.

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This was brought to me over the weekend when I was talking to someone close to me who has always admitted to having little interest in politics – the details, at least – while, at the same time, wanting to vote and to do so with some confidence that she is doing more than just voting a certain way because a bunch of people tell her she should. I tried to explain to her that it’s tough. She told me how she had been in a room with a bunch of people whose opinions she respects and yet, when she broached the idea that she wasn’t sure how she would vote, no one tried to convince her of anything with careful explanations or reasons. Instead, scorn was heaped upon any choice that wasn’t the preferred of those in the room.

And the thing is, it’s tough to find any source that aims at balance since the media we rely on these days isn’t well-suited to that. That point was brought home to me listening to CBC in the car yesterday. I no longer even remember what the topic was but the speaker claimed that “90% of Canadians . . .” were opposed to something. And that was that. The interviewer didn’t even question the figure in passing. It was simply let slide. No reference to the source, the study, anything to corroborate such a claim. Radio and television are immediate and transitory in ways that written arguments are not and, as a result, they can rarely offer in depth analysis in the moment.

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Perhaps the best exception to that rule that I’ve encountered is CBC Newsworld’s “Power and Politics” hosted by Rosemary Barton. If you are looking for media that provides balance and real discussion, I would recommend this. Just be willing to sit for two hours a night. Barton challenges every empty phrase, platitude and gobbledygook non-answer that comes her way and it’s fun to watch, if you are looking for balance. Conservative, Liberal, NDP and any other pundits are equally skewered and/or challenged.

Experience (and ratings, no doubt) tell me that not many people are willing to take the time, five nights a week, to delve into the particulars of any party’s position on issues. As I mentioned earlier, in reference to the TPP, the parties’ positions are, in large measure, a product of the campaign environment. In our current, media-reliant world, the sound-bite rules.

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So, as election day nears, the rhetoric remains strident and absolute. I suspect, over the last couple of weeks, the volume might increase but little else will change. Depending on who is broadcasting, Harper will be characterized as dictator/destroyer of the nation or sound manager; Trudeau will be the inexperienced, wannabe, name dropper or the defender of the middle class and Canadian values; Mulcair, the angry radical outlier too like Harper (if you’re a Liberal supporter) or Trudeau (if you’re a Conservative supporter) or the face of a new politics, a new age even where Canada’s place in the world can be restored.

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As I’ve been arguing since I started this blog, oversimplification may be appealing but it serves no one well in the long run. It’s too late for this election. But then, maybe “too late” is just par for the course. Perhaps the only difference is that the media’s pervasive lens reveals that penchant for stark oversimplification that has always been there. But even then, you’ll only see it if you’re willing to look.

Drawing the line: the complicated process of real debate

Dislike of another’s opinions and beliefs neither justifies our own nor makes us more certain of them: and to transfer the repugnance to the person himself is a mark of a vulgar mind.
– John Lancaster Spalding

The debate around the niqab that has now become a strategic element of the national campaign (how effective an element is, itself, a matter of considerable debate) provides a classic example, for me, of an issue that lends itself well to the oversimplification that I like to spend time decrying. It manages to engender strong, emotional reactions: it has religious implications; it is a “women’s issue”; it can be framed as a personal freedom issue; it potentially raises questions about the nature of Canadian identity. Chances are I’m overlooking some other way of framing the debate that deserves consideration but I’ll stick to these four.

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Certainly freedom of religion and religious practice constitutes one of the commonest defenses of just about any behaviour that might be viewed objectionable or outside the norm (assuming anyone could ever say just exactly what the “norm” is). It would never occur to most people that such things as hairstyle, clothing, assigned days of rest, food choices, modes of address, – all things that have, by some, been claimed as elements of religious conviction – should be challenged. It is only when a claimed religious conviction comes up against competing ideas that are considered of greater and broader significance that objections become significant.

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The most obvious example, recently, would be all things surrounding gender identity whether it be gay marriage, gender reassignment surgery, or other related issues. Certain religions have very strongly held views in opposition to such things (note the county clerk in the U.S. who wouldn’t issue marriage licenses to gay couples because it violated her version of Christianity), but the law, in such cases, increasingly sides with those who see such things as natural and inoffensive.

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Interestingly, to me, the niqab manages to raise even deeper questions in some ways. When it comes to sexual orientation and gender issues, we are, here in Canada and the U.S., on solidly Western grounds. As a civilization, Western culture has been moving inexorably toward secularism at the expense of religiously based “norms” for quite some time now. Yes, a vocal opposition commonly raises objections as the law moves ahead with gay marriage and other LGBT concerns, but that train has left the station and few could imagine turning back.

The niqab comes from a culture outside of the experience of the average Canadian. While I can remember a time when the young girl who got pregnant disappeared for a few months or maybe was moved altogether in order to “protect” all concerned, I have no frame of reference which allows me to evaluate a woman’s desire to continue to wear the niqab. In the case of the young girl who is pregnant, I am glad we have developed sufficiently as a society to accept such things and seek to aid and to assist in whatever manner might be deemed appropriate. Ostracizing is no longer a choice, thankfully.

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But the niqab? For personal, religious reasons a woman asserts that she wants to wear the niqab. Am I correct if I look at the context in which such a practice is common and say that the wearing of the niqab manifests that religion’s subjugation of women? Should I then be able to ban the wearing of that article because it butts up against the higher moral principle of personal freedom and the equality of persons that Canada, as a country, might tend to assert? At the same time, how can I miss the inherent irony of insisting that someone conform to something as proof of their freedom from conformity?

Nevertheless, we do place limitations on immigrant cultural communities whose practices are viewed as “going too far” you might say. When it comes to sharia law, for instance, some have made efforts to allow for sharia law to be applied in parallel to the Canadian Criminal Code, as long as its application was restricted to those who chose to live by those cultural norms. Shouldn’t they have the “right” to do so if they wish? By that logic, honour killings should be allowed as well. As a general rule, the core limit we place on practices we might otherwise defend on the grounds of religious freedom or something else, revolves around how much such a freedom would affect others without their consent.

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In the case of the wearing of a niqab at a citizenship ceremony, the even larger issue of Canadian identity is raised, generally along the lines of “why should anyone conceal themselves at the moment when they are joining the Canadian family?” I could write an entire blog on the manifold assumptions and unstated premises in that question but maybe another day.

As I am repeatedly trying to argue, though, it isn’t simply a matter of saying this side is right and that side is wrong: it’s not a black and white issue. Personally, I’m perfectly at ease with the woman who wants to wear a niqab wearing one. Nothing of what I’ve read suggests to me that she has been coerced or pressured into wearing it. She has made a choice and even if I don’t understand the practice personally, no one is forcing me, or anyone I know, to don any particular article of clothing for any particular reason.

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At the same time, the angst that this issue raises, especially in Quebec it would seem, deserves analysis. In an earlier blog of mine, I mused on the difficulty we have, as Canadians, with a national identity. The complacency that, to my mind, dominated such concerns for many years is proving insufficient to the challenges of our shrinking, connected world. As I said, if it were up to me, wear a niqab or anything else you deem appropriate at your citizenship ceremony, as long as it’s something you choose and we know who you are beforehand. But that’s me, and nothing is so simple that we can simply ignore those who do not agree just because we think our way is both right and obvious.

The best of both worlds?

There is no decision that we can make that doesn’t come with some sort of balance or sacrifice.
– Simon Sinek

One of the things I like best about where I live is the view. I grant you it isn’t one that everyone would enjoy but I don’t feel the need to sell anyone on its particular attractions. From the small deck in my back yard, I look across Courtenay Bay (part of the Port of Saint John for those of you who might be unfamiliar with the geography) to an oil export terminal. Beyond the terminal, a closer look reveals a wallboard plant, a power plant and, before giving way to natural landscape, various structures with the centerpiece flame that marks an oil refinery. In the distance and to the right, all the way to Red Head, a ridge of greenery completes the horizon, one where the moon is wont to rise and cast its light upon the bay. Full moon at high tide provides the best display, but even when the tide leaves mud flats exposed, the reflection can mesmerize.

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A couple of years ago or so, when my wife was still alive, we thought about giving this place up. We looked at one house in particular, on the West Side, that had a great many features we appreciated. We went so far as to have a tour of the property and we came away intrigued but not yet convinced. I remember talking about it in the car as we were driving back home. Much of what we had seen was easy to like but we were unsettled, unsure, without knowing precisely why. We were ready to give ourselves some time to allow the impressions to settle but when we walked up the front steps, stood on the porch and looked out to Red Head across the water, any thoughts of leaving were abandoned. For whatever reason, we were attached to this very contradictory view.

I say contradictory because few panoramas offer such a stark contrast between the manmade and the natural. While Saint John has many other pockets of industry, the conglomeration of activity from the waterfront to the refinery and everywhere in between is without parallel. Among the many things I’ve learned watching the ships come and go is just how quickly the turnaround is and how constant the traffic. A ship comes in on one high tide and leaves a couple later at most. And with few exceptions, another eager vessel is waiting to take its place. Watching tugboats turn large ships displays both power and agility. Taken altogether, it is fascinating. I never tire of it.

Courtenay Bay itself provides lots to see. I follow the tide tables and thoroughly enjoy the ebb and flow. Invitations for photographs present themselves almost daily regardless of time of day or season. For all that this body of water is a commercial centre, it still illustrates the persistence of natural forces. My imagination frequently tries to conjure an image of the tidal action of the Bay of Fundy and I have my own little laboratory just out my front or back door. As I said, the view is not for everybody but I’ve grown ever fonder of it through the years.

Many people find the industrial landscape disheartening. They lament the ruination of the natural scene and I do understand such sentiments. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could eliminate all industrial blight and return the land to its original state? Environmental orthodoxy would answer quickly and forcefully “yes”! As for me, I just don’t think it’s that simple. However much we need to be responsible stewards of our environment, we need to recognize equally that the commerce I can observe on a daily basis contributes in large measure to our being able to enjoy a standard of living that is second to none in the world.

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My Courtenay Bay scene provides the perfect study in contrasts. Smokestacks, the persistent hum of machinery, ships coming and going, all set against a backdrop of cold Atlantic seawater and rolling greenery stretching into the distance. As a believer in moderation, I have a hard time with extremism on any front. Those who object to industrial growth and development in virtually any form are no better than those who would ignore every environmental concern for the sake of a profit.

My view across the Bay tells me that we, humanity, are here and we are having an impact. It could not be otherwise. At the same time, it reminds me of the natural beauty that is part of our heritage, a beauty and a heritage that we need to protect. Unless we believe that abandoning all of the amenities of modern life is the way to go, we need to come to an accommodation that reconciles those two seemingly opposing views. As with so many things these days, the public debate might lead you to believe this is a stark either/or question. No surprise, it’s not that simple. “Accommodation” is the key word here, and it works both ways. Balance is seldom easily obtained but rarely has it been so urgently needed.

Religion and reassurance are hard to come by

They say that Caliph Omar, when consulted about what had to be done with the library of Alexandria, answered as follows: ‘If the books of this library contain matters opposed to the Koran, they are bad and must be burned. If they contain only the doctrine of the Koran, burn them anyway, for they are superfluous.’ Our learned men have cited this reasoning as the height of absurdity. However, suppose Gregory the Great was there instead of Omar and the Gospel instead of the Koran. The library would still have been burned, and that might well have been the finest moment in the life of this illustrious pontiff.
― Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Sciences and Arts (1st Discourse) and Polemics

I attended an event this past Saturday at the Main Branch of the Saint John Free Public Library. A lecture entitled “Is Islam a Threat to Canada? An Introduction to Islam in our Community” was given by Fazal Masood Malik of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of PEI. While the numbers might have been greater, those who attended were obviously the truly interested. Altogether there may have been 30 of us and, with the exception of one person who was somewhat strident in expressing a largely negative viewpoint, we all seemed equally receptive to our host and the message he came to provide.

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As might be expected, Mr. Malik’s answer to the question posed by the title of his lecture was a resounding “no”. And, through his reading of the Koran, it was easy to see why that was the answer. As Mr. Malik tells it, the prophet Muhammad, and through him, the words of Allah contained in the Koran, speaks of a religion that is tolerant of all other religions, that is dedicated to peace, both individually and collectively, and that has very little to say about the politics of any nation other than to insist that Muslims obey the properly constituted authority of whatever nation it is where the Muslim resides.

Mr. Malik developed his answer to the question within what I would describe as a very narrow window. Not unlike any other defender of a particular doctrine based upon a sacred text, he quoted compellingly from the Koran those instances where Allah condemns the behaviours that we in North America and other Western nations (although not exclusively just Western) have come to associate with jihadists and terrorists or whatever you might want to call them. In his reading of the Koran, it is quite clear: Allah does not sanction the xenophobic, monolithic imposition of the brand of so-called Islam practiced by ISIL, al-Qaida, the Taliban or any other group that fails the litmus test of compassion, tolerance and fair-dealing that are the hallmarks of the true Islam Mr. Malik came to defend.

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While I was both impressed and reassured by the apparent moderate and appealing reading of Islam that Mr. Malik presented, at the same time, I left, still troubled by the prevalence of a view of Islam that seems to be diametrically opposed to the teachings I had just heard. Major Middle Eastern regimes lay claim to Islam as the authority whereby they flog some, behead others and generally deny a number of human rights that we, as Canadians, accept as a given. By the measures I heard enumerated on Saturday, no country with an Islamic heritage can claim to be practicing the faith truly and diligently.

As I wrestled with this dilemma – and I do think it is the core of the dilemma that a good many Westerners have when struggling to be fair – I thought back on my own Christian heritage. I was raised in a devoutly Roman Catholic household (a house which shared a wall with the Baptist church next door) and my grandmother seemed quite convinced that those Baptists had little chance of entering the kingdom of heaven, a chance missed by all those who did not follow the “true faith” (that being, of course, the one we practiced).

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While I admit to being a lapsed Catholic, that doesn’t mean I haven’t remained interested. I’ve watched the changes that have been led by Popes throughout my lifetime. Personally, I saw John Paul II and Benedict XVI as regressive, throwbacks who wanted to reverse some of the most significant reforms of their immediate predecessors. I watch the current Pope Francis, an interesting study in contrasts, – someone who seems bent on very forward reforms in certain ways while being far less enthusiastic for others.

In my lifetime, and for a few lifetimes prior to mine, interpretations of Christian doctrine have seldom been the source of significant conflict, Northern Ireland being, perhaps, an exception, although that had become far more about political power and control than differences in religion by the time it morphed into the late 20th century. What about some earlier centuries, though? I was reading about the Emperor Constantine not long ago, specifically about one of his conquests where the entire population of a besieged city was put to the sword, ostensibly because they were not practitioners of this new faith that the Emperor had embraced.

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Fast forward through the crusades and the inquisition, both examples of Christians, in the first instance, setting out to reconquer lands considered to be within the sphere of influence of Christian powers and, in the second, putting to death anyone identified as being at odds with the prevailing orthodoxy. In either case, I have great difficulty imagining Jesus as a cheerleader. Who today would seriously argue that Jesus would have been there on the front lines of the Crusades or been the guy holding the torch in preparation for the burning of the latest heretic? From the perspective of a few centuries of moderation, we might even be tempted to say that slaughtering unbelievers and burnings at the stake seem unChristian (some understatement there, hopefully).

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By virtue of this parallel, I feel I can gain a better handle on Mr. Malik’s argument and, I would say, his predicament. Assuming he represents a “truer” interpretation of Islam, he is going to struggle to overcome the impact of all those who have bombed, attacked and otherwise slaughtered innocents in the name of their particular brand of Islam. What makes the radicals (and all radicals everywhere, no matter the rationale) truly frightening to me is how fervently they seem to believe in their version.

As I’ve tried to argue in all of my blogs here, the reality is far more complex than it might seem. Thanks to Mr. Malik, I have a greater appreciation of the nobility inherent in Islam. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make me any more secure in the face of those who act in its name in ways that seem just as bizarre as any Christian burning someone at the stake before they draw and quarter him/her. Understanding can only go so far. It can’t always prevent me from looking over my shoulder.

When everyone’s an expert

Incestuous, homogeneous fiefdoms of self-proclaimed expertise are always rank-closing and mutually self-defending, above all else.
― Glenn Greenwald

I feel the need to remind myself – and anyone who might be reading – of the origin of this blog’s name: unabsolutedotcom. The founding premise was that even the seemingly simplest of issues is far more complex than it might first appear. In and of itself, I wouldn’t blame anyone for saying “so what?” What is to be gained by acknowledging complexity? Shouldn’t we leave the details (of whatever) to those who have the knowledge and expertise? As Hamlet would say, though “there’s the rub”. What constitutes expertise these days? Do we know? Have we given it much thought?

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In fact, my recent observations lead me to conclude that our current view of the very notion of expertise is tinged with a persistent cynicism. If someone presents him or herself as an expert in subject X, should such an expert’s view of an issue differ from our own, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that view dismissed. As a general rule, would-be experts are valued only inasmuch as they validate our established positions on issues. In fact, the nature of information these days is such that an “expert” can be found to support just about anything.

Accounting for this phenomenon isn’t that hard. I’m old enough to remember a time when information of the more esoteric variety could be found only in books. Even then, if you were looking for something especially obscure, the public library wasn’t enough. If you were lucky enough to have a university in your community, you might visit its library but even then, depending on just HOW obscure your topic was, that could be a dead-end. When I was working on my thesis for my M.A., I had to physically visit archives as far away as Boston in order to find materials relevant to my topic.

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Compare that to today. I don’t think I’m so much different from anyone else: if a question about something occurs to me, I immediately head to the nearest internet connection (phone, tablet, desktop, laptop, etc) and “google it”. For the most part, that poses few problems since I’m usually looking for simple information. When that same internet becomes the chief source of our understanding of complex issues, I become concerned. I’m not the first one to say it but it bears repeating: finding it on the internet does not make it true.

The same warning used to apply to newspapers, as in, “just because you read it in the newspaper doesn’t mean it’s true”. This warning becomes all the more compelling when applied to the online world. At least newspapers then and now answer to editorial staffs and to a general code of conduct that helps them to avoid the worst inaccuracies. Internet sources, as far as I can tell, answer to no one. That isn’t to say that all things internet are unreliable; rather, it is the unfiltered quality that makes the entirety problematic. If something is found on a website whose pedigree is clear, we can take comfort. Determining that pedigree, however, can be difficult in its own right.

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As more and more people, organizations and interest groups come to understand the freedom the internet offers to present a particular point-of-view, it should come as no surprise that objective information on any subject is hard to come by. At the same time, those offering information online commonly make arguments that are intended to prove just how objective they are, even if their partiality is especially evident. Perhaps the clearest example of this would be Fox News whose tagline, “fair and balanced”, is laughable to all but the most indoctrinated. At the same time, the continuing insistence by such a prominent and mainstream source that it is fair and balanced feeds the very cynicism that I find so regrettable.

I would argue (and it’s an old argument) that where news reporting is concerned no such thing as absolute objectivity exists. By virtue of the fact that a certain thing becomes news while something else doesn’t, we know that someone, somewhere, has made a judgement call. In the end, the most surprising reality, to me, is that we seem to have lost sight of that fact. Perhaps we choose to ignore such an understanding as long as the source of our news confirms our point-of-view?

I suppose that simply makes us all human. What one of us doesn’t like to have our point-of-view confirmed as appropriate and right? All the same, what happens when easy access to “expert” information makes anyone who takes the time to read a few articles imagine that he/she is now well-informed?

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Our oversimplification of notions of equality has fed this delusion. In our continuing preoccupation with ensuring that no one is offended, we imagine that anyone’s opinion on anything is equal to the opinion held by anyone else. Maybe we should call it the democratization of opinion, a phenomenon where no single thing can ever be considered simply correct; rather, all opinions – no matter how outlandish – have weight because someone has them. And if you doubt the validity of a certain position, be prepared to counter the online experts who can be summoned in defense of just about anything.

True expertise in anything is a product of time (study being a large component) and experience. These days, loudness and aggression can often substitute. While such behaviours make for good copy on news feeds, they seldom lead to good decisions. Passion by itself is no substitute for understanding. The former is often easy to summon while the latter takes effort, far more effort than entering a subject line and pressing “search”.

Two different inclusions

Under popular culture’s obsession with a naive inclusion, everything is O.K.
– Stanley Crouch

The Supreme Court’s recent decision that prayer in public institutions – specifically at a council meeting in Saguenay, Quebec – shouldn’t be allowed provides an interesting entry point for a discussion of inclusion, a hot topic in New Brunswick, especially as it relates to public schools. At first glance, someone might be moved to question how the two could possibly relate to one another. Prayer at a council meeting segues into a discussion of inclusion in schools? Understandably, it seems like a stretch to want to talk about the two things in the same breath.

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A story on the Supreme Court’s decision piqued my interest when it used the word “inclusion” in reference to factors which determined the justices’ conclusions. Needless to say, inclusion here means something quite different from inclusion when employed in an educational context. The fact that the same word can be used in such radically different situations points to the problematic quality of such terms when they are used as if their meaning is crystal clear. In fact, as the radically different contexts suggest, definitions and their implications can serve as profound examples of the commonly expressed truth that “the devil is in the details”.

When it comes to the issue of prayer, the view of the Supreme Court seems fairly straightforward to me. While the article notes that our constitution, unlike that of the U.S.A., makes no specific mention of the separation of church and state, the principle of ensuring that PUBLIC institutions are inclusive suggests that favouring a religious stance over an expressed irreligious or atheistic one, has the potential to make someone in the latter category feel left out or uncomfortable. And the solution to this dilemma (let’s leave any discussion of how much of a dilemma really exists to another day) is so simple: before this decision, identifiably Christian prayers were said before council meetings; from this point forward, they won’t be said. Case closed.

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When the word “inclusion” is used in reference to education, on the other hand, it just isn’t that simple. Inclusion has become both a stated policy and a guiding principle in education in the New Brunswick school system. To speak publicly, in a negative way, about the policy is anathema for teachers. If anyone is fool enough to do so, an abrupt rebuke is likely to follow. Having worked in the system at a time when current inclusion policies were being developed but had not been implemented to the degree to which they are now, I have limited experience with the impact such policies have had to the present moment. Based upon discussions I’ve had with former colleagues who are working amidst the current inclusive environment, however, it sounds as though the challenges are many, to put it mildly.

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Just so no one reading this thinks I am someone deserving of one of those afore-mentioned rebukes, I am not writing to voice my opposition to inclusion in schools. As Canadians, we have many things of which we are rightly proud and I would like to think that our capacity for welcoming diversity within our communities is among the most highly regarded. Creating an inclusive society is on a par with any other element which might come to mind when envisioning the best Canada we can imagine.

But, in schools, inclusion isn’t on a par with the Supreme Court’s decision. In the latter case, a judgement is rendered and from that day forth, no prayers in council chambers ensures that one and all are “included” in such sessions. Unfortunately, in our rush to achieve inclusive schools, we employ a similarly narrow view. The prohibition that governs commentary on inclusion prevents anything resembling assessment of its effectiveness from occurring.

When I’ve tried to bring this subject up with people who are proponents of current practice, I am commonly confronted with the assertion: “Inclusion is working”. Considering our penchant for researching everything in education before we allow that it even exists, I am surprised on the one hand that such views are offered without qualification. On the other hand, the defense of inclusion as a principle has become ideological; hence, no time can be allowed for any opinion that questions the central article of faith, namely, that inclusion of all students in common classrooms without consideration for differences of any kind is an absolute good.

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In the case of a classroom, though, what does it mean to say that “inclusion is working”? Do we assemble students in classrooms with nothing more than the express purpose of gathering them together without consideration being given to anything beyond their age and grade level (assuming grade levels exist)? Most people, I’m guessing, would think that what is being learned and the environment in which learning is, hopefully, going to take place would be at least as important.

Perhaps the core of the problem with inclusion in reality – as opposed to inclusion in theory – lies with the either/or mentality that is so prevalent in this age of oversimplification. I’ve been privy to conversations where someone tries to raise a concern regarding a personal experience with inclusive classrooms only to be shut down before the concern can be adequately outlined. This is a siege mentality that imagines the issue exclusively in the framework of “you’re either with me or against me”.

Surely there is room for some honest examination of the impact inclusion is having on classrooms. Good teachers speak of more time being spent in raw classroom management than is spent on actual instruction. And even as I say that, I know that I could easily be assailed by someone who would question my formulation of a classroom as a place where instruction occurs: “we facilitate; we don’t instruct”, or something along those lines.

Even that, though, helps support my point. Classrooms are dynamic places and inclusion is just one element of that dynamic, albeit an important one. Focusing on just one element to the exclusion of all others costs all concerned. If improving schools is our highest aspiration, we need to recognize the true complexity of the inclusion model. If our PROOF that “inclusion is working” is simply that everyone is now in similar class groupings, we end up serving no one well.

Criticizing critical thinking

Critical thinking is thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking in order to make your thinking better.
― Richard W. Paul

I’m struck today by the irony implicit in the conception of this blog of mine. “Unabsolutedotcom” exists as a result of my frustration with what I see as persistent oversimplification in just about everything that touches upon our lives, but especially as it manifests itself in public discourse. And yet I try – in some 900-1000 words usually – to unravel that same complexity. While that might strike some as more than enough to dedicate to such a project at one time, I frequently feel constrained.

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Getting lost amidst the details (the devil’s in them, as the saying goes) constantly threatens clarity, but then I shouldn’t be surprised by that either. No matter the story in the media (I choose that as a reference point since so much of our grasp of current affairs is controlled by what we read, see or hear through print, television and radio), seldom do we learn much beyond the statement, the proclamation or the conclusion.

To be fair, in many instances, we really don’t need much more. If our concerns are limited to a bare understanding of events or facts without qualification, then our conventional media sources can be commended for doing a fine job. As I’ve noted in previous blogs, never have we had so much information so easily accessed (maybe “acknowledged” is a better way to put it since I’m at the end of a very long list when it comes to noting that). I’ve finally arrived at a point in my own life where I seldom sit around wondering how I will find an answer to something only to have it occur to me that the answer is literally an entry on my smartphone away. “Automatic” is the best word to describe my readiness to turn to the nearest electronic device whenever I am looking for simple information.

problem 2
What about reflection and analysis, though? A common theme these days (especially in education, my favourite topic) concerns the need for critical thinking in all kinds of situations. This information age of ours, however, creates a habit of mind that discourages such thinking. For that matter, I’m not even sure that we really mean “critical thinking”, per se, at least not my understanding of the term. “Problem-solving” better describes what most are looking for, which is a VERSION of critical thinking that is well-suited to an age of technological innovation.

Lo and behold, the entire notion of criticism falls victim to over-simplification and serves to further illustrate the difficulties inherent in even trying to address the issue. Instead of critical thinking being a vehicle whereby we illuminate the nature of a problem, where subtleties and nuance are revealed, or where questions are developed, refined or discovered, we pursue it solely as a means to a particular end.

Once again, my personal pursuit – of the more nuanced version of critical thinking – demands that I qualify the previous paragraph. The pursuit of a particular goal through critical thinking isn’t a bad thing. Of course it isn’t! But neither should that be regarded as the ONLY valuable use to which it might be put. The best critical thinking allows us to go wherever the mind might lead us, to confront the uncomfortable, to consider things in ways that might have eluded us and yes, to find solutions to problems that may have been, themselves, unclear to begin with. Allowing for critical thinking of the best kind, you might say, is the defining element of a free society.

problem 1
So why am I ranting about this today, you might ask? No surprise to anyone who has been reading this blog (or listening to my ponderings throughout the years), a story regarding education got me on a tear. The president of the New Brunswick Teachers’ Association was offering his opinion that a proposed cut to the budget of the Department of Education would decimate education in the province. Of particular interest to me as I read the article were his references to two studies conducted over the last ten years, both of which deal with the subject of inclusion in schools. To be clear, I do not want to discuss inclusion itself at the moment. If you are not even sure what I mean when I say “inclusion”, that’s okay, too. I will come back to it on another day.

All of this is happening in the context of the provincial government asking departments to suggest what cuts of between 5 and 10 percent in their budgets would look like. I don’t even want to spend time considering how problematic such an exercise is in and of itself. Considering the inherent complexity of anything as massive and varied as our public schools, such calculations can’t help but seem like a fool’s errand to me but that too I’ll save for another day perhaps.

No, what bothered me most was how the article suggests that the NBTA and its leadership fail to even question the assumptions that drive the system. Haven’t they heard enough to know that the current system is already in big trouble?!? If the article is reporting accurately and thoroughly, the lone response from the representatives of professional educators is to challenge any planned cutbacks exclusively on the grounds that resources currently are insufficient to ensure that policy is implemented as outlined.

problem 4
I’m not surprised, though. It’s easier to spend all of your critical thinking energy on trying to solve the math problem of the budget than it is to look closely and CRITICALLY at WHY schools are not improving even as the budgets increase and teacher-student ratios are the best they have ever been. The best critical thinking tends to make us uncomfortable and few nowadays, especially in the public arena, have the stomach for that.

Is knowing how enough?

Our technological powers increase, but the side effects and potential hazards also escalate.
– Alvin Toffler

tech change 5
I was struck by a comment a friend of mine made over the weekend. She suggested that when she read my blogs she could see how they originated based upon certain things she had heard me say in the days prior to their composition. Maybe I had read an article, or seen something on the news, or simply shared a reflection on something I had been thinking about. The noteworthy thing, for me, was the recognition of cause and effect, that the thing I ultimately produced had origins that, to her mind, could be detected and, in fact, traced.

Now granted, this was hardly a scientific accounting of cause and effect but it did get me thinking about the entire subject of cause and effect, a concept that has occupied my imagination for some time and that is one of the ongoing concerns at the core of this blog. As it turns out, my being reminded of this in such an immediate and personal way was valuable as I began to consider what I might end up writing about today.

I was already primed for something that would incorporate this theme when an article I saw this morning proved to be the final impetus. The article summarized the findings of a study undertaken at UNB in Fredericton that investigated the link between teens, texting and their propensity to be sexually active. While the conclusions were qualified in a variety of ways, the central assertion was that a link had been established between the amount of texting teens did and how likely they were to become sexually active. The study acknowledged that the closeness teens felt to parents and other factors should be considered as well but the bottom line was that those young people who texted with the greatest frequency were more likely to be sexually active than those who texted less.

tech change 3
The authors of the study were very careful, as I say, to couch their conclusions in a number of qualifications but that isn’t what made the article significant to me per se. Rather, I was struck by the very fact that such a study existed at all. I’m at a loss to remember when I first noticed just how ubiquitous texting had become among those removed from me by at least a generation but I have to think that its prevalence has grown by leaps and bounds over the last while. I was sending the occasional text myself as long ago as probably 5 or 6 years but I don’t remember things then being quite as they are now.

Now – and this is purely anecdotal – it seems that being buried in your smartphone just about everywhere is commonplace. Walking down the street, sitting on a bus, in a restaurant: you name the place. Virtually everywhere you go, you will see someone engaged with a handheld device. When the population gathered in a room is largely teenaged, it is far from uncommon to see virtually everyone exploring the screen in front of them at the expense of conversation or other forms of social interaction. That being said, this behavior is certainly not restricted to teens. The same friend who suggested she could trace the origins of my blogs has commented more than once on my tendency to be drawn into the world of my smartphone at the expense of more social behaviours.

tech change 2
If you are thinking by now that I am building toward some kind of critical rant against texting, handhelds, smartphones or some other device or technology associated with the same, I assure you that I am not. I readily acknowledge the convenience – the pleasure even – that can come from such things. As with anything new, it can lead to a great many novel ways to entertain, to engage, to who knows what?

And that last question DOES lead me to my point. The smartphone and texting are manifestations of a much larger transformation. Technology – particularly technological innovation – proceeds at such a pace these days that it is, quite literally, impossible to keep up, at least when it comes to evaluating the impact of something. The UNB study I referenced earlier looks at a very specific issue within a targeted segment of the population and offers conclusions that are clearly to be regarded as tentative and in need of qualification. In some earlier time, we might have waited expectantly for the next study to be carried out and for results to be published, say, two years from now, results which might further deepen our understanding of this phenomenon or dismiss it altogether. Fat chance.

tech change 4
Two years from now, who knows where we will be as far as phones go. I am no fan of Siri (the voice on Apple devices) but I have a friend who never types a message. He dictates it and makes corrections to the text if it is absolutely necessary. Will we even need to carry a phone in two years? If you think that seems far-fetched, how many of you really believed we would ever approach a time where serious consideration would be given to allowing cars on highways that would drive themselves?

When I look to see how I arrive at a topic for a blog, it’s easy. Maybe I fail to account for the specifics in some way but I’m fairly confident that composition (even inspiration), however mysterious it might seem, can be traced to its source, even if the source itself might seem obscure at times. Where advancing technology is concerned, on the other hand, how do we evaluate its impact when the innovation of the moment is rapidly forgotten as the next great advance captures our imagination?

tech change 1
We’ve all seen the movies or read the books where technological advance without some kind of oversight or conscience leads to the end of the world or some brand of catastrophe. Hyperbole? Okay, but the pace at which things advance technologically these days does concern me. Changes of any kind bring consequences. At the very least, it is always nice to be able to consider from some distance just what impact such changes have. I’m not sure we’re well-equipped for a world where change comes and is replaced by yet another change before we’ve even quite grasped the nature of the first. And to emphasize the point one more time, in the time it takes for us to consider THAT notion, chances are the world has moved on yet again.