Dear Premier: What is your vision for education?

To the premier of this province:

The problem of bullying and xenophobia can only be solved through liberal arts education. To really understand the human condition, we must tap into students’ empathy and expose them to great literature and works of art. We must open their minds to the beauty of music and to the colour and variety of culture. Schools that subscribe to the principles of capitalism and focus only on marketable job skills will only add to the problem of bullying, as the inextricable premise of capitalism is unwavering competition – survival of the strong, and annihilation of the weak.

To streamline schools by decreasing the number of teachers; to kill fine arts programs; to lay off librarians; to sell schools to capitalist interests; is to kill our society. If we tie our schools to a business model of efficiency, we create a world with a medieval authoritarian mentality – a cruel, heartless, low-principled, thuggish world where people eye one another with suspicion and hostility.

You will be the leader of a people, not of a budget. What is your vision for your society, dear Premier? What is your vision for education?

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Why Anti-Bullying Campaigns Don’t Work

In the late summer of 2012, a Coquitlam, BC girl named Amanda Todd committed suicide in a very theatrical way, first recording and publishing a youtube video that expressed her grief over the online bullying that she had experienced, and then ending her young life. Her suicide created a shockwave of emotion through the province, and a sensitivity to the issues around online bullying.

In a seriously misguided attempt to do something (or appear to be doing something), the premier of the province announced a large sum of money that was to be put toward the issue of bullying in schools. Every school in the province was mandated to send a representative to one of the workshops that were set up. This was indeed an example of “throwing money at a problem”. It was naive and misguided to think that a couple of workshops could change the situation in a meaningful way.

The problem with all the anti-bullying campaigns that I’ve seen is that they tend to look at ways to deal with bullying after it happens. They tend to focus on catching, and rehabilitating or sanctioning the bully, and on teaching people what to do if they’re bullied.

There are a couple of reasons why this doesn’t work. First, no campaign that focuses on the behaviour of the victim can ever work. Otherwise, the problem of rape would have ended centuries ago as women were forced through religious law to suppress their sexuality. But a far more important reason that anti-bullying campaigns don’t work is that people, particularly children, have not experienced for themselves what it is like to be the victim. Without that experience, it is hard for us to see how much something hurts.

I’ve always cringed when people use the word “retarded” to describe either a person with an intellectual challenge, or to describe something ridiculous or foolish. I’m not more sensitive than anyone else; it’s just that I happen to have a sister with Down’s Syndrome, so I know a thing or two about how hurtful the word can be. I would never want my sister to attend a movie in which the word was mentioned even once, as it’s such an unbearably cruel thing for her to have to hear the word – a word that rang in her ears throughout her childhood in public schools. My sister knows that she’s an outsider. The word just serves to remind her of that fact.

The “R-Word” is just one example of how language can hurt. But there are many. Amanda Todd fell victim to “slut discourse”, people tell racist jokes, and there is much hurtful language around people who are attracted to people of the same gender. It’s not until we have been marginalized, or have had close relationships with those who are marginalized, that we can really understand the harmfulness of our own language.

Nor is the problem just language. It may have a deeper root – one possibly wired into our biology. Evolutionists might suggest that as a species we are not wired for an inclusive society. Perhaps our early days as a species, we needed to be xenophobic in order to survive. To ensure that we wouldn’t become casualties of natural selection, we had to eliminate the weak, who are unproductive and would be a burden on our resources, and we had to protect ourselves from outsiders with whom we were competing for scarce resources. That hangover of evolution has left us with this propensity for cruelty toward anyone who his different.

The issue of “bullying” is far too complex to be solved by a politically expedient anti-bullying campaign, or by a few placards placed around a school. To end bullying we need to examine its causes. We need to give children a strong liberal arts education that teaches empathy and critical thinking. We need them give them drama classes that encourage role play and teach the important skill of empathy. We need to connect children to visionary teachers who will model inclusion. We need to expose children to stories that allow them to see the importance of gentleness and kindness. We need to set up schools as places of not only learning, but of community. And above all, we need to examine ourselves. We need to recognize our own transgressions, to move past them, and to try always to do better.

Breasts on Trial (sigh… again)

I was recently tweeted a story about a girl who got expelled from her Catholic high school for “sexting”. It’s a story of  hypocrisy – one that gets to the heart of the purpose of feminism, I think. A Catholic school girl is expelled for texting a topless picture of herself, while the male athletes who passed the photo around were not punished at all.

These are the kind of stories that make my head explode. There are so many issues here: our expectations of girls, our understanding of pornography, our obsession with female nudity or nudity in general, our expectations around online behaviour. But what really jumps out at me from this article is the fact that with the possible exception of some idiotic leering by a few jocks in a locker room, the kids seem to get it. It was a dare, a joke. No big deal, at least initially.

And really, it is no big deal – or it should be no big deal. After all, it is a rather common phenomenon for women to have breasts – so common, in fact, that our unending fascination with the topic could be perceived as absurd. I wonder when we will be able to get to the point where there would be no interest in daring a girl to “flash”. In an ironic way, I think the girls who confidently take the dare have figured it out. Maybe the boys too. It’s possible that the kids all got a laugh out of the fact that she actually took the dare – that it really is “no big deal”, and that they weren’t leering over the picture simply because it depicted female nudity. Implicit in the concept of “dare” is a recognition that a standard is created by society rather than determined by nature. That’s what I like to suppose, anyway. Alas, there’s a good chance that I suppose erroneously.

I can stop bullying.

I see so much pain daily as I watch human interaction! I regret to admit that I’m not above contributing to that pain. Sometimes I debase myself by hurting others. I do. I get angry, insecure. But I’m trying to be better.

What follows is what I think I need to do.

Before I trumpet my belief, express my passion or desire, I must always consider whom I will hurt.

I must not look at demeaning images, or participate in demeaning jokes or language. I must consider that by so doing, I am reinforcing a distortion of reality – a perversion, which goes against reason, and worse, I am making people around me feel inadequate. They can try to disregard the feeling, but it haunts them. I can tell them that I respect them, but they will always fear that they will be the butt of my jokes. They will always feel that they fail to measure up to an ideal that I reinforce even to myself every time I support these distortions – pornography, racist or sexist jokes. Surely these things are harmful to my relationships. Surely these pursuits are bound to make people sad and mistrustful of each other.

When I debate a point, if I’m right, and I know it, I need to proceed with caution because I now have the power to really hurt another person. It is cruel to verbally “beat down” someone – to “put him in his place”.  No one can find out he’s wrong without feeling humiliated and embarrassed. Surely I can argue reasonably and politely, protecting the feelings of the person I am correcting? Surely I can hold my tongue at times and not feel the need to correct everyone with whom I disagree.

If I am in a position of leadership in which I make policy decisions, I must never lose sight of the possibility that I may harm some people with my decision. And I must always err on the side of protecting the weak. The strong will be able to survive a little bit of adversity, but the weak – the poor, the sick –  have very little to give up. The tiniest disruption of their ecosystem is a huge crisis for them. I must recognize that I am very lucky and that most people are not so lucky.

When I am walking down a sidewalk in a group of people, if I encounter someone coming the other way, I must move to single file so that the other person doesn’t have to step off the sidewalk or get out of my way. I must be gentle and considerate. I must let others go before me in line. I must watch where I’m going. If I bump someone, I must say “Excuse me,” and mean it sincerely, especially if I am the bigger person. I must consider where I place my shopping basket in the grocery store, and try not to get in people’s way. I must look in my rearview mirrors when I drive, and let people in, and allow them to make mistakes on the road without subjecting them to my arrogant derision. I too make mistakes.

When I talk to elderly persons, I mustn’t look down at them for their frailty. I know nothing of their ways, of the world they navigated through when they were my age. I must respect them. They have given their whole life to my society – have paid their taxes, raised children, fought the necessary fights, suffered. They have wisdom that I can only hope to attain. I must remember that one day soon, I too will be old, and I will want to preserve my dignity. The least I can do for the elderly is protect their dignity. I must give them an ear, give them a seat on the bus. I must listen to their wisdom, and treat it as a precious gift.

When I see someone getting picked on, I must go to his side, no matter how my reputation will suffer. This is courage. I must speak gently all the time, and I must listen more than I speak. I must resist the urge to be the centre of attention. I must love the people around me. I must care about them. I must state my case simply and know in the back of my mind that as much as I think I know, my whole world view could be wrong. I must listen to everyone: to the frail, the weak-minded, to people who live in uncomfortable social awkwardness. On any given day, I too am awkward and likely to say the wrong thing. I must be patient and understanding. I must ease the suffering of those who lash out. I must not reflect their hostility back to them, but answer them with gentle understanding.

When I have hurt someone, I must apologize. I must go alone to the person I’ve offended and seek his forgiveness. I must do it quietly and of my own volition. It’s better when it isn’t expected. I must try not to be a threat to anyone, but to be someone people can trust.

I must be an activist. I must have the courage to stop something that I don’t feel is right. I must have the courage to stand up for change I believe in. I must get off my chair and vote. I must attend the protest. I must try to find out what’s going on and try to understand it. I must write down or speak my concerns (gently).

The world can be a lonely, lonely place. We spend far too much time alone. I yearn for companionship and compassion. So must everyone. Above all, I must love.