Doctrinal Purity

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Before he became the ruler of the city-state of Geneva, John Calvin was noted for, among other things, his writings on religious tolerance. During the five years as head of a government – not so much. He oversaw the execution—mostly by burning at the stake—of more than 50 people for heresy. Calvin was catholic in his approach – not capital-C Catholic of course but ‘universal’ as the word also means. He killed pretty much anyone who disagreed with his particular interpretation of the Bible and God’s word. And, if anything, he seemed to dislike his fellow Protestants the most.

Doctrinal purity is a dangerous thing. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Careful how you answer that or you could find yourself catapulted away just like those who can’t figure out the ground speed of an unladen swallow. There is always a finer point of questioning to catch you up. As for three-in-on or one-in-in three, unless you are talking about lubricating oil, you had best shut up.

Thankfully times have changed. You can no longer be burned at the stake for getting some trivial religious interpretation wrong. These days it is more likely to be beheading or maybe just a bullet to the head. But not in the west, surely?

Well, surely not. Here we are satisfied with jailing people for defamation or perhaps shouting them down at a political meeting. Slap suits are a common tool of the rich to silence people who question how they got their money. And give them enough power and they may just remove your right to speak at all.

I recall once being accused of being a Trotskyite by a fellow NDP party member as a way of shutting me up. But that was nothing.  Now you’d best be careful of what you say on any cultural issue or you may find yourself in for a Twitter storm of abuse or much worse – having the SWAT team called to your house by an anonymous tip. Not exactly a walk in the park.

Both left and right have considerable aversion to each other’s shibboleths and doctrines but I sometimes think they hold out their strongest criticism for those within their own ranks who deviate from the received Truth. Just read a few of the repulsive alt-right tweets about John McCain’s recent diagnosis with brain cancer or the silencing of any voice that doesn’t toe the identity politics line – check please (your privilege that is). Silence is far preferable – and apparently safer – than critical analysis or questioning of someone’s facts.

Everyone, of course, can lay claim to their own opinions but increasingly they lay claim to their own facts, too. Cries of fake news started by the right have been embraced by the left just as political correctness, originally a weapon of the left against their own, was appropriated by the right. Oh, and don’t get me started on appropriation.

Of course, the left argue they have the high ground since, while the right rely on religion, they believe in science, except when it comes to the disquieting studies that show GMOs or vaccines aren’t dangerous or that eating meat may not be as environmentally dangerous as we thought.  I could go on but who needs the abuse.

Well, pox on all of them, I say. And if you don’t agree, well, sit down, shut up and wait your turn on the grill. And that’s ten minutes.

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Tolerating Evil

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How much tolerance do you have for evil? Most of us like to think we have very little and, on one level, that may be true. As long as we are fairly certain that what we are considering is truly evil and as long as we feel we can actually do something about it, our tolerance is pretty low. Damn right I would step up to stop Hitler! But what about Goering? Some nameless Captain in the SS? How about the skinhead next door? Would you slap down the well-dressed and well-spoken head of a neo-Nazi or alt-right group?

Probably – if you didn’t think you would get stabbed.

Still, actually figuring out what is evil is the hard part. It’s easy in retrospect. Obviously whoever lost the fight (i.e., the Nazis, the slaveholders) was evil. Or, where there is no clear winner or loser, we can all agree that evil was done – though sometimes we can’t quite figure out by whom.

But that’s retrospectively, right? In the late 1930s, there were plenty of people—including the former king of England—that thought Hitler wasn’t a bad sort, if a little hysterical. At first, Idi Amin had his supporters and, given that he lived out his life in comfortable exile, continued to have them after he was deposed. Alt-right guys probably think they are doing the proper thing—if only the 99% of people who don’t support their agenda could see it.

They say that all that is needed for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing. But that, of course, presumes you have the capital T truth about what is good. Missionaries that wound up destroying indigenous cultures and supporting the slave trade justified themselves by saying they were bringing salvation to the heathens. Communists who instituted the Cultural Revolution in China surely did it to bring about the glorious freedom of pure socialism.

But let’s bring it down to some simple things. If you see a man hitting his spouse or a mother wailing away on their child, would you personally intervene? Would you call the cops? Would you say: It’s a private manner?

I once witnessed a mugging. One of the muggers (they were all pretty young but there were five of them) showed me a knife. I decided not to do anything except watch it unfold. I had time to decide that, if no one got hurt, I would let things unfold. It was only money, right? Afterwards I realized that waiting until after the victim was stabbed would have been too late (no one got stabbed by the way). I was furious at myself but would I do any different today? I hope so but I’m not sure. I’m getting old but I’m not quite ready to die.

I see a lot of hate on Facebook – almost as much of it from the left (whose agenda I largely agree with) as from the right (whom I find hard to bear). Occasionally, I say something about it but I find it a useless expenditure of time and emotional energy. I’ve come to understand that a small percentage of people you meet are assholes (most don’t come close to qualifying and if you think they do, you should take a long hard look in the mirror) and that an even smaller percentage are irredeemable and dangerous assholes. I can only hope someone steps up to stop them before they actually hurt people. But it probably won’t be me.

Not much fun to admit but, I suppose, admitting weakness is the first step to overcoming it.

And that’s ten minutes.

Triggers

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I have a friend who has a colony of feral cats living close to his house – well, practically right outside his house. He feeds them – a bit – but mostly they are on their own. He lives in the country, well away from his neighbours and his property is also home to hawks, coyotes and weasels. Not surprisingly, the number of cats goes up and down over the course of the year, reaching their peak at about this time of year.

Most of the cats are pretty skittish. Most will accept food but won’t be touched. A few, especially the younger ones are a bit friendlier and will purr and accept pats. One black and white kitten was particularly cuddly. Was.

Recently a relative was visiting with his dog. The dog had had previous run-ins with the cats and had not come out well. This time he chose his target well. He killed the friendly kitten.

When my buddy told me about it, I was upset and angry. I told him I would have kicked hell out of the dog. At the very least that dog should have been muzzled. I’ve thought of that little kitten several times since then and it still upsets me.

So why did I tell you that? Some of you are probably as upset as I was. Some of you might now be upset, angry, grief-stricken, remembering when one of your pets died. Some of you probably feel I should have warned you.

I should have started off by saying: Trigger Warning – dead cat. But I didn’t. On purpose.

Being upset by life is part of the process of living. It also part of the process of finding your moral centre. Confronting events or ideas that upset you help define who you are. To some extent the desire to avoid them is understandable. I certainly turn away from racist or misogynistic remarks and from those who make them. But turning away does not make them go away.

Not that some people haven’t been badly traumatized and need help to get over their pain. Sometimes that means protecting them or letting them protect themselves from painful reminders. But sometimes they need to confront their pain and figuring out what it is about the world that you need to try to change.

A couple of years ago (has it really been that long?) I witnessed the shooting of Nathan Cirillo at the War Memorial. It made it hard to go to work – to be anywhere near the memorial or even Parliament Hill. I was diagnosed with PTSD. I also had mild depression, compounded by anxiety. For the former, the treatment was straight forward enough. My doctor told me to go to the site of the shooting every day until I could define it as a safe place. I had to exercise agency to reclaim that place for myself. Avoiding it would have made my condition worse and made it last longer.

The depression and anxiety was another thing. Those I needed to work through rationally and slowly, identifying the things that made me feel that way and figuring out alternative narratives or possible actions that would resolve them. It was a real thing and it gave me insight into what people who have faced much worse go through. Sometimes alternative narratives are hard to find; actions hard to take.

Which is why we do need trigger warnings and safe places sometimes – but not to protect us from being upset or angry or sad. Being emotionally engaged – even painfully – is not the same thing as being traumatized. And treating them the same does nobody any good and may well do them harm. And using other people’s trauma to shut off discourse we don’t like is just plain wrong.

And useless. It will make no more difference to the world than wanting dogs to stop being dogs. And that’s a bit more than ten minutes.

 

Domestic Violence

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There was another domestic murder near Ottawa yesterday. A man, who clearly intended violence since he brought a gun, confronted his ex-wife in her father’s home. His former in-laws and his two children were present. The father-in-law intervened in the argument and he was the first to die. The ex-wife was shot next and then he turned the gun on himself. He died of his wounds while the woman has life-threatening injuries. According to reports, the grandmother and two children ran away and were ‘unharmed.’ Other than having their lives destroyed, of course.

We point to a lot of reasons that such things happen. Violence against women is endemic. Men are raised in a society that says, implicitly at least, they ‘own’ their families. We don’t have enough women’s shelters or enough penalties to punish violent men or programs to cure them. All true.

Some even blame feminism – that is to say; uppity women. You’ve probably heard variations of that expression in other contexts.

There is another factor that has only recently been talked about. It can be summarized in the expression: spare the rod and spoil the child. Some people believe that striking children is a necessary part of good parenting. It teaches them a lesson. And it does: it teaches them that violence is an answer to their problems.

My father, on occasion, struck me. It was very much a special occasion – not more than a handful of times in my entire childhood. Mostly I got a clear explanation of how I had failed to meet his high expectations of me – far more painful.  Still, to resort to violence so seldom was pretty good, considering his father had, on occasion, used a horsewhip on his children. I recall one time when my brother and I had committed a particularly egregious crime (and in this case it was an actual crime – theft). I can still hear my father’s words to my mother more than fifty years later. “Get them out of my sight; if I start on them I don’t know that I can stop.”

And that is domestic violence in a nutshell. Once begun, where does it stop? Violence always escalates – whether during a single incident or over the course of a series of them.

And it often begins in childhood. Children who are routinely physically punished – and here I am not talking about horse whips but what most people would refer to as a spanking once or twice a month – are more likely to become schoolyard bullies, more likely to strike their own children or domestic partners, more likely to commit domestic murder, more likely to go to prison for violent crimes, more likely to fail at life.

See. They learned their lessons well.

Sadly, society has done little to stop systematic violence against children. Think of it, we haven’t prevented acts against little kids that would otherwise be considered assault. The criminal code actually condones the use of reasonable physical force against children between the ages of two (two!!!) and twelve. The definition of reasonable is left to the parent (or teacher). My father’s words come back to me – “I don’t know that I can stop.”

Fortunately, the law is going to change – if the new government is to be believed – and that exception will be removed. Parents who beat their children will have no defence under the law. And maybe, twenty years from now, a few children will be spared losing their parents and grandparents to violence. We can only hope.

And that’s ten minutes.

Savings

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There are lots of things going on in the world today but for some reason I didn’t feel like writing about any of them so I thought I might skip 10 Minutes today. But then I started thinking about my next vacation which led me to wonder how I’m going to pay for it.

My wife often says that if we just drank a little less we might have more money to spare. Now I don’t drink $50 bottles of wine or sip from $200 bottles of scotch. No my preference is cheap wine and cheaper beer with only the occasional treat of something special. Still, it adds up and, over the course of the year, might well – if I were to stop altogether – pay for a (modest) week somewhere not too expensive.

But why stop there? If I were to stop eating anything I didn’t prepare myself, I’d certainly be better off – especially if I cut beef out of my diet, which some people seem to think is more healthy (others, thankfully, disagree). Again , we aren’t talking about eating out every night at five star restaurants but I do go out a couple or three times a month, plus the occasional lunch at the cafeteria or pub and the three times a month order of pizza… and a few muffins; again, it adds up. It might not pay for a week in Paris but a long weekend in Montreal? Sure.

Savings abound. For example, I live downtown and, while that means I don’t need to own a car, it is a bit expensive when you add up mortgage, condo fees, taxes and so on. Not penthouse in downtown Toronto expensive but not cheap. I could move to the suburbs and, as long as I was on a bus route, save quite a bit each month. Now that would pay for a week in Paris for sure – maybe two.

But wait, I thought of something else. I read about 35 books a year. I could probably increase that to 45 if I cut out drinking and eating out and spend my time commuting on the bus reading. But, I generally buy 60 to 70 books a year. And not e-books either but usually hard covers and trade paperbacks. Cutting twenty or so of those would pay for a weekend in Toronto for sure.

Look at that – four simple changes in my life and I can have another three or four weeks holiday time paid for without sacrificing anything. Well, other than wining, dining, reading and the comfort of my turn-key condo.

And think of the money I could save if I stopped going on vacations! Why, I’d be as rich as Howard Hughes. And pretty much living his lifestyle, too. Which means I’d be saving on soap, shampoo, haircuts, nail clippers and telephone bills. Hmm.

I guess I’ll have to cash in my RRSPs and pay for my holiday that way.

And that’s ten minutes.

Religious Violence

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Is religion inherently violent? Certainly there are those who will say it is. Or rather they will say Islam is. You can find those claims if you like – usually made by people who have an outside’s view of that religion. There are others who will tell you that all religions are inherently violent. That faith itself is the basis of violent behavior.

I’m not one of those people. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no big fan of religion. It is a colossal waste of human time and energy. It is sometimes used to oppress people; it is often used to defraud them. The good that religious people do is neither different nor greater than the good done by the irreligious. And make no mistake; people have done great violence in the name of religion. All people, all religions, everywhere.

It’s hard to do violence in the name of atheism but a few people have even managed it. Not Hitler  – he was a self-proclaimed Catholic – but others.

See, that’s the thing. People do violence. And, sometimes they use religion as an excuse. Some may even use it as a motivation. Nobody gets off the hook for that.

Yet, if religion was a cause of violence, we’d be in a lot of trouble. There are literally billions of devoted people in the world. If religion drove them to violence, we’d all soon be dead. Yet, in fact, the world is getting less violent. Don’t take my word for it – there is good solid research to show it is true. The world is also getting more secular but the trend away from violence predates that change.

Why people like the barbarians of Daesh are driven to commit atrocities is unclear. Some of it is based on ideology rooted in what is clearly a misinterpretation of Islam just as Anders Breivik in Norway murdered scores of people because he misunderstood Christianity, just as Buddhists in Sri Lanka and Myanmar clearly misunderstand the teachings of Buddha. I could go on – as I said people have committed acts of violence and terrorism for a long time for a lot of reasons.

You might as well ask if politics is inherently violent. Think of all the acts of violence committed in the name of one ideology or the other – right or left, authoritarian or anarchist, they all do it.

People are violent and usually don’t need any reason at all to be that way – except to justify themselves. Violence is a tool to get what you want – money power, sex. We are all wired to respond to violence – a few by fighting, many by fleeing, some by freezing. Frozen people do not resist.

And of course there are causes for violence – which include poverty, powerlessness, fear of the other, fractured economies, criminal tendencies and human venality.

There are those who think that violence must be met with more violence. The evidence for that succeeding is pretty slim. When you look at why the world is becoming less violent, clearly it is not because of more violence. It is because we are also remarkably good at cooperating, at building societies, negotiating ways of living, of talking and working together for a better world.

Because most people don’t like to be hurt. Most people do not like hurting others. Most people believe in the golden rule: do unto others… And you don’t need religion to know that. But it’s surprising how many religions preach it.

And that’s a little more than ten minutes.

Book Reviews

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I read a lot of books. Not as many as I would like to but still about 35 to 40 a year. Sadly, I usually buy 50-60 every year but that’s another story and another problem.

Lately, I’ve been wondering about book reviews. We are constantly extolled to write book reviews on Amazon and on Goodreads or whatever. It seems like a reasonable thing to do. Supportive, right? Well, unless you write a blisteringly bad review one that not only calls into question the value of the book but the parentage of the author.

We’ve all seen those. You don’t even have to read them to know what they say. It is all summarized by the one star rating (or sometimes two star – which I’ve found is nothing but a tease to get you to read more). Another big give away are GIFs. If a review has a bunch of people jumping up and down and making funny faces, the review is probably negative.

Many of these flashy reviews themselves get a lot of reviews in the form of likes – which drives them up on the review site. Frequently a book that overall gets decent rankings will show ten or twenty negative reviews right at the top of the column. You might think it is a conspiracy – and you might be right.

Just as there are people who buy five star reviews, there are those who make a sport, for various reasons, to gang up on writers they don’t like – usually because they disagree with their politics or, worse yet, because they challenge their delusions. Left or right, it doesn’t matter. Book reviews increasingly are a weapon in the culture wars.

But here’s the thing. I don’t think they work. At least they don’t work on me. I’ve seldom bought a book that got a five star review simply because it got one. The exception might be if someone I personally know and whose tastes I share recommends a book to me. Then I might buy it. But a complete stranger? Not a chance.

I also don’t avoid books because someone has trashed it on Goodreads. Especially if they have used a lot of GIFs to do it. I basically buy books in two ways. As I mentioned, if a friend recommends it. Or by seeing it in a bookstore and flipping through it. The only book reviews that might send me to the bookstore to look are those in very reputable places by reviewers I’m familiar with. But even then I don’t buy books on their say-so. I buy them on mine.

Do I sometimes make mistakes? Sure, I’ve bought a few books that turned out to be crap. But since I buy more than I can read, I just set it aside and read another book. And the bad book, I don’t review it anywhere. Not anymore. Life is too short.

Oh, and another thing. I’ve never met a writer yet whose writing was changed by a book review – negative or positive. By the time anyone gets to review a book, the writer has left it behind. They’ve moved on to other topics, other books. A bad review might hurt, but change you? Not a chance.

And that’s ten minutes.