The hazards of humour

Have you ever made a witty remark on a blog and offended someone who took it the wrong way?

Roger Ebert has that problem, too. Here’s a Q&A from Ebert’s Answer Man feature:

Q. Recently you have come under fire from readers who don’t get the humor in your columns, as in your “Dukes of Hazzard” and “The Aristocrats” reviews. The print media is the absolute hardest place to be witty. A little piece of me dies every time one of your witticisms is mistaken for a sincere attack.
Andrew Zimmer, Los Angeles

A. I hope it is a very small piece. A depressing number of people seem to process everything literally. They are to wit as a blind man is to a forest, able to find every tree, but each one coming as a surprise.
Roger Ebert

“The print media is the absolute hardest place to be witty.” Perhaps I’ll take comfort in that the next time I make a joke and a fight breaks out. (Not that it has happened to me recently.)

For the love of dialogue

Why do you blog? About a week ago, Jack explained the objectives that motivate him. Here’s the condensed version:

  • This is a place where I can air out my thoughts about life and the experiences I have had and will have;
  • It is a place where I expect at some point in the future my children, grandchildren and beyond will be able to learn more about who I am/was;
  • the blog offers me an opportunity to continually practice my writing so that I can work upon honing my skills;
  • maybe someone will discover me and hire me to write a book;
  • and perhaps the most important thing is that this blog offers me the opportunity to interact with people I might not meet otherwise.

I’d like to pick up on Jack’s last point and explore it a bit.

I blog primarily for the love of dialogue. In my day-to-day interactions, I find few people are willing to discuss meaningful issues in any depth. But in the blogosphere, I can seek out people who are exploring the subjects that fascinate me: religion, law, politics, history, sociology, psychology, philosophy, art — basically any discipline that offers insight into human individuals and societies.

blog cartoon 1By dialogue, I do not necessarily mean disagreement. Bloggers are too quick to find fault with one another! Political blogs get boring pretty quickly for this reason: the exchange of views consists of punches and counter-punches which never add up to anything.

It’s OK to disagree with me; my ego is strong enough to cope with a little rough-and-tumble. But a good dialogue adds one insight to another, creating a snowball effect.

Early in our relationship, Mary P. and I came up with a simile. “When we talk,” one of us said, “it’s like we’re building with bricks: I lay a brick, you lay a brick, I lay one, you lay one …. The finished structure is something neither one of us could have built on our own.”

At this point I must interject that I have nothing against “lurkers”. In fact, I think the term is unfairly pejorative: surely a lurker is some pervert who hides in the bushes outside your house and peers into your bedroom window!

People who read my blog aren’t perverts … no more than anyone else, at any rate. When no one leaves a comment, I take comfort in the fact that my tracker shows that people are still visiting. So thank you, lurkers, one and all.

But it’s the love of dialogue that keeps me blogging. I enjoy writing, and I benefit greatly from the discipline of setting my thoughts in order for others to explore. But it requires a significant investment of time. Without the dialogue, which I find so stimulating, I would quickly lose the motivation to blog.

Monologues are boring! Your comments enrich the blogging experience for me, and turn the blogosphere into a community.

blog cartoon 2

Pregnant and disabled in public

Alison LapperNo, this isn’t really a follow-up to my earlier post, Pregnant in public. I just couldn’t resist the urge to echo the title here.

The photograph on the right shows a statue, “Alison Lapper Pregnant”, currently on display in Trafalgar Square. It is an accurate representation (aside from its 16-foot height!), having been made from a plaster cast of Ms. Lapper’s body.

Alison Lapper was born with no arms and only partial legs (the condition is called phocomelia). But in all other respects she is perfectly normal — including the capacity to conceive and carry a baby.
Alison Lapper 2(Ms. Lapper often poses nude. I believe she conceived the concept for this photo herself.)
Ms. Lapper survived a very difficult start in life. She was raised in an orphanage where the staff terrorized the children. She would have been adopted into a loving home, but her mother put a stop to it for some reason. Eventually she got married, but her husband wanted only to abuse her. Heather Mallick tells the story:

No family member on either side spotted anything wrong with him. … On their wedding night, he shut the door of their room and turned to her with an odd expression on his face. “You’re mine now and you’ll do as I tell you.”

The greatest thing any woman should fear is a man who seeks to control. Imagine a man who feels the need to control even a limbless woman. Once, he started to pull her slowly off the kitchen table, mocking her as she approached the edge where she would fall and break her head open. Desperate, she bit his arm, drawing blood. She divorced him.

alison-parysToday, Ms. Lapper is an artist:  she paints by holding a brush in her mouth. She is also the single mother of a five year old son, Parys. After a brief relationship with an able-bodied man, she says, “I quite unexpectedly, and quite happily fell pregnant, and he ran a mile”.

The statue will only be displayed in Trafalgar Square for eighteen months. Even so, it is causing some controversy. Some critics don’t think it’s art, or at least not very good art. And some members of the British public don’t think the subject matter is suitably historic/heroic for Trafalgar square. Phil says:

I think it’s a cool statue, but I don’t think it’s right for here. All the other statues in the Square are of national heroes, so — no offence to her, because she’s a great person and she’s done some really good work — I think we should have another national hero up here.

But Ms. Lapper says,

I think it’s brilliant. Where else in the world can you see a 16-foot sculpture of a naked, disabled, pregnant woman? The fact that a major work by a well-known English artist [Marc Quinn] is concerned with disability is a turnaround — though Parys is most upset that he’s in my tummy and you can’t see his face. I’m not a champion of the disabled world, but it’s a joy when people come over after seeing me on TV and say it really made them think.

OK, maybe it isn’t particularly inspired as a work of art. But a lot of contemporary art isn’t very uplifting, whereas this piece is. Jackie says it beautifully:

It’s a really beautiful piece, and I think it makes you look at the body of the person very sympathetically. It’s very rounded, very appealing. I think that’s a lovely thing to bring that forward — when we don’t normally think of a disabled person’s body as being beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. It’s an interesting coming together of an aesthetic artform with a body that you wouldn’t normally look at it in that way. I find it really affirming. I’d certainly prefer to see this than more sculptures of war heroes.”


“I would pick Parys up by his clothes with my teeth and lay him across my shoulder. I breast-fed him for ten months with him in a sling across my chest. I’ve never been able to hold him in my arms, but we were very physical with one another, so we haven’t missed out.”

Debating etiquette, part 4: Presuppositions

Several months ago, I published three posts on debating etiquette. The most recent one was published on July 4, so I think a recap is in order:

  • Introduction — Debating etiquette serves two purposes: it minimizes unnecessary offence and it improves the quality of a debate. Skilled debaters can tackle complex and emotionally-loaded issues constructively, and make incremental progress toward Truth.

    The series is not primarily about improving your debating technique. I refer instead to etiquette:  I aim to encourage people to be respectful and considerate in debate.

  • Part 1:  Assertions — There can be no debate without an assertion (more formally known as a proposition). If you want to improve your debating skills, begin here:  be precise in wording your assertions and reduce them to their essence before setting out to defend them.
  • Part 2:  Diversionary tactics — If your goal is to win the debate, diversionary tactics are your friend. But if your goal is to discover Truth — which I hope is your goal! — diversionary tactics are an obstruction to be avoided.

    The post provided a very basic introduction to logical fallacies. Whether they are introduced deliberately or they arise in ignorance, logical fallacies divert the course of an argument in a direction which hinders our pursuit of Truth.

  • Part 3:  Arguments — Assertions are important, but a series of assertions and counter-assertions is not sufficient in itself to constitute a debate. Assertions (opinions) have to be supported by the evidence. This is where arguments come into play. An argument appeals to objective facts, then proceeds to make rational deductions from the facts, in a methodical attempt to substantiate an assertion.

    The post focused specifically on the use of analogies to support an assertion. Analogies can be very illuminating, but only if they actually speak to the point at issue. What seems like a perfect analogy to me may be rejected as spurious by someone else.

From the beginning of the series, I envisioned four parts. I haven’t posted part 4 until now because I was waiting for the right illustrative material to come along.

I’m glad I waited, because the perfect material is now available. Here is the final installment in the series — Debating etiquette, part 4:  Presuppositions.

The USA has just suffered through two very destructive hurricanes, Katrina and Rita. Inevitably, people are asking why it happened.

It is my firm conviction that Why? is an unanswerable question. But many people think they know the answer, and they have not hesitated to share their answers with us.

What interests (and amuses) me is this:  their answers are entirely determined by the presuppositions they bring to bear on the issue. One explanation contradicts another, because they are derived from incompatible worldviews.

The point can be illustrated from today’s Ottawa Citizen. As Joel Kom reports, many Americans believe the two hurricanes were sent by God to punish the nation for its sins:

As a city known for gambling, drinking, drugs, sex, parties and other things sinful, New Orleans’ fate is similar to Sodom and Gomorrha, two biblical cities of sin that were destroyed by God. It’s no coincidence, some argue, that Katrina hit just a few days before the launch of the Southern Decadence festival, one of the biggest gay gatherings in the world.

The festival “has been cleansed,” says Pastor Bill Shanks of the New Covenant Fellowship in New Orleans.

“There’s no murder in our city now, that’s been cleansed. Drugs, murders, we don’t have that stuff anymore.”

Pastor Shanks says the city was due for what he termed “God’s judgment.”

But how could Rita’s targeting of Texas, a state known for a devout Christian population, be explained?

Steve Lefemine, director of Columbia Christians for Life, an anti-abortion ministry based in Columbia, South Carolina, points out that Texas has the fourth-highest abortion rate among U.S. states. New Orleans, he adds, had six abortion clinics in the area.

To emphasize his belief that abortions led to the hurricanes’ landings, Mr. Lefemine posted a message on his ministry’s website comparing an image of Katrina on weather radar to a picture of a fetus.

No matter what the facts may be, they will always be interpreted in accordance with our presuppositions. Why would God destroy New Orleans? That’s easy! — the residents of the city were depraved. But why, then, would God smite Texas, which is heavily populated by evangelical Christians? Because of its many abortion clinics, of course!

It is impossible to falsify a cherished presupposition.

Let’s move on to another illustration. A second contentious issue was debated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when New Orleans descended into anarchy. Again, people asked Why? And again, their answers were determined by their presuppositions.

In this case, your answer may hinge on what you think of the “welfare state”. Suppose you are left-leaning. You think the welfare state is good, and the American every-man-for-himself ideal is bad. If those are your thoughts, you will agree with Doug Saunders‘ analysis. Mr. Saunders observes that Americans have

a shared belief that individual hard work, good luck and God’s grace will bring a person out of poverty and into prosperity. But those very qualities can destroy the safety net of mutual support that might otherwise help people in an emergency.

“Fear itself motivates people in the U.S. — the fear that you could lose everything,” said organizational psychologist Cary Cooper in an interview from his office at the University of Lancaster. “That creates the best in American society, the inventiveness, but the moment the net is pulled out, it becomes a terrible jungle.” …

Historians point to a constant threat of self-destructive breakdowns that seem to dot U.S. history, belying the thin veneer of civility that sits between entrepreneurial prosperity and mass chaos. The individualistic, egalitarian, anti-authoritarian values that have made the United States succeed have always been accompanied by an every-man-for-himself ethos that can destroy the system itself.

Well, that’s one perspective. But perhaps you are right-leaning in your views, and you think the welfare state is a disastrous idea. In that case, you would agree with Robert Tracinski. He noticed that the problems occurred in a community of public housing projects:

When confronted with a disaster, people usually rise to the occasion. They work together to rescue people in danger, and they spontaneously organize to keep order and solve problems. This is especially true in America. We are an enterprising people, used to relying on our own initiative rather than waiting around for the government to take care of us. … So what explains the chaos in New Orleans? …

75% of the residents of New Orleans had already evacuated before the hurricane, and of those who remained, a large number were from the city’s public housing projects. …

There were many decent, innocent people trapped in New Orleans when the deluge hit — but they were trapped alongside … wards of the welfare state, people selected, over decades, for their lack of initiative and self-induced helplessness. The welfare wards were a mass of sheep …

What Hurricane Katrina exposed was the psychological consequences of the welfare state. What we consider “normal” behavior in an emergency is behavior that is normal for people who have values and take the responsibility to pursue and protect them. People with values respond to a disaster by fighting against it and doing whatever it takes to overcome the difficulties they face. They don’t sit around and complain that the government hasn’t taken care of them. And they don’t use the chaos of a disaster as an opportunity to prey on their fellow men.

Like the fundamentalists whose point of view we considered earlier, Mr. Tracinski blames the victims. Why did the city of New Orleans descend into anarchy? Not because the people had lost everything — loved ones, homes, jobs, etc. And not because the infrastructure that sustains all of us in a modern civilization was utterly destroyed. And not because the various levels of government had apparently abandoned them to their fate.

No, the city descended into anarchy because people who live in public housing have no values; because people like them are “selected, over decades, for their lack of initiative and self-induced helplessness.”

Yeah, right.

It fascinates me that Mr. Saunders and Mr. Tracinski are both so sure of themselves — and yet their views are utterly contradictory! Each writer knows that his analysis is sound. And it is — but only if his presuppositions are taken for granted and we reason from that starting point.

Briefly, one more related issue:  the inexcusably slow relief effort in New Orleans. Again, people asked Why?; and again, their answers were determined by their prior commitments. The Economist observed:

Pundits explained the government’s failure in every way they pleased. Anti-war types blamed Iraq, particularly the fact that thousands of National Guard troops had been sent there. Environmental types blamed Mr Bush’s lackadaisical attitude to wetlands. Many Democrats saw it as proof that Mr Bush and the Republicans cared nothing for America’s poor and black.

For every set of presuppositions, there is a corresponding theory:  fundamentalist, left wing, right wing, anti-Iraq-war, environmentalist, partisan Democrat, etc., etc., ad infinitum. Political convictions, like religious convictions, can engender certainty where a little agnosticism would serve us better.

What shall we conclude from the above data?:

  1. It is easy to align the facts with your presuppositions and spin an elaborate theory. People think they’re clever when they do it, but it’s no more impressive than water flowing downhill. If you want to prove that you’re clever, demonstrate that you can view the world sympathetically from someone else’s vantage point.
  2. We need to be aware of our own presuppositions, and how they prejudice our conclusions. Too often, we think we have put forward a solid argument, but the foundation on which the argument rests is terribly shaky.
  3. We need to be patient with those who analyze the same data and reach wildly different conclusions. Too often, we think people are just being pig-headed when they fail to worship at the altar of our arguments. But the other person’s position may be entirely valid, given his presuppositions. Since he is sincerely trying to be reasonable, we should not assume he is a jerk.
  4. We obviously need to take the debate back one giant step — back to the arena of presuppositions, where our conclusions were already determined before we began to reason.

If we are honest with ourselves, we will soon discover that our presuppositions are very difficult to prove. The other person will fare no better, and the agenda may have to shift.

Instead of beating one another over the head with our respective arguments, we may set out on a voyage of mutual discovery. Ultimately we may even experience the thrill of a paradigm shift — a very great and unsettling experience indeed!

Mastering powerful emotions

From time to time, we are all overcome by strong emotions:  anger, despair, envy, fear, grief, guilt, loneliness, etc.

It is counterproductive to ignore such overwhelming emotions and pretend that they are not there. The person who is not mindful of his or her emotions will be mastered by them.

But surely mindfulness alone is not enough. How is it possible to master such powerful, internal forces? Thich Nhat Hanh offers a rare combination of spiritual insight and practical advice.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and poet. He was once nominated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In this excerpt from one of his books, Nhat Hanh is discussing Buddhist meditation. But the reader can benefit from these insights without necessarily assuming the lotus position and meditating in the formal sense of the word.

Stopping, Calming, Resting, Healing

Buddhist meditation has two aspects — shamatha and vipashyana. We tend to stress the importance of vipashyana (“looking deeply”) because it can bring us insight and liberate us from suffering and afflictions. But the practice of shamatha (“stopping”) is fundamental. If we cannot stop, we cannot have insight.

There is a story in Zen circles about a man and a horse. The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the man on the horse is going somewhere important. Another man, standing alongside the road, shouts, “Where are you going?” and the first man replies, “I don’t know! Ask the horse!” This is also our story. We are riding a horse, we don’t know where we are going, and we can’t stop.

We have to learn the art of stopping — stopping our thinking, our habit energies, our forgetfulness, the strong emotions that rule us. When an emotion rushes through us like a storm, we have no peace. We turn on the TV and then we turn it off. We pick up a book and then we put it down. We sit with the person we love, but we don’t know that she is there. We are someplace else, thinking about the past or the future.

The horse of our habit energy is carrying us along, and we are its captive. We need to stop our horse and reclaim our liberty.

Mindfulness is the energy that allows us to recognize our habit energy and prevent it from dominating us. The first function of meditation — shamatha — is to stop.

The second function of shamatha is calming. When we have a strong emotion, we know it can be dangerous to act, but we don’t have the strength or clarity to refrain. We have to learn the art of breathing in and out, stopping our activities, and calming our emotions. We have to learn to become solid and stable like an oak tree, and not be blown from side to side by the storm. The Buddha taught many techniques to help us calm our body and mind and look deeply at them. They can be summarized in five stages:

  1. Recognition — If we are angry, we say, “I know that anger is in me.”
  2. Acceptance — When we are angry, we do not deny it. We accept what is present.
  3. Embracing — We hold our anger in our two arms like a mother holding her crying baby. Our mindfulness embraces our emotion, and this alone can calm our anger and ourselves.
  4. Looking deeply — When we are calm enough, we can look deeply to understand what has brought this anger to be, what is causing our baby’s discomfort.
  5. Insight — The fruit of looking deeply is understanding the many causes and conditions, primary and secondary, that have brought about our anger, that are causing our baby to cry. Perhaps our anger was triggered when our friend spoke to us meanly, and suddenly we remember that he was not at his best today because his father is dying. We reflect like this until we have some insights into what has caused our suffering. With insight, we know what to do and what not to do to change the situation.

After calming, the third function of shamatha is resting. Suppose someone standing alongside a river throws a pebble into the air and it falls down into the river. The pebble allows itself to sink slowly and reach the riverbed without any effort. Once the pebble is at the bottom, it continues to rest, allowing the water to pass by.

When we practice sitting meditation, we can allow ourselves to rest just like that pebble. We can allow ourselves to sink naturally into the position of sitting — resting, without effort.

Calming allows us to rest, and resting is a precondition for healing. When animals in the forest get wounded, they find a place to lie down, and they rest completely for many days. They don’t think about food or anything else. They just rest, and they get the healing they need.

When we humans get sick, we just worry! We have to learn to rest. Don’t struggle. There is no need to attain anything. Our body and mind have the capacity to heal themselves if we allow them to rest.

[adapted from chapter 6 of The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation]

   (recognition; acceptance; embracing; looking deeply; insight)

I invite you to comment on one of the above principles, and describe how it has helped you to master powerful emotions.

High school education gets a failing grade

Ontario has been trying to fix its public education system. I thought we were making progress … but maybe not.

According to today’s Globe and Mail, students who graduate from high school may still lack the fundamental skills they need to succeed in university:

Although professors have long lamented the English and math skills of their students, they are increasingly complaining that too many students — some with top marks — arrive on campus unprepared for the rigours of academia. These students struggle to string together a sentence, let alone form a paragraph.

“I have seen students present high school English grades in the 90s, who have not passed our simple English test. And I don’t know why,” said Ann Barrett, managing director of the University of Waterloo’s English language proficiency program.

Several Canadian universities are discussed in the article:  the University of Ottawa, the University of Waterloo, George Brown College (all in Ontario), and Simon Fraser University (in British Columbia). All are grappling with the same problem.
At the University of Waterloo, officials immediately target certain students after administering an entrance exam in writing proficiency. Almost all students write a five-paragraph essay in their first week of school and are graded on grammar, punctuation and structure.

Ms. Barrett said that about 25 per cent of the students fail each year. Those students are required to get extra help.

“I’ll tell you one thing that drives me crazy:  So many students don’t know the difference between ‘then’ and ‘than.’ How is this possible?” Ms. Barrett asked. “I’ve read it hundreds of times. Isn’t that taught?”

Please note, these are not students with dyslexia or some kind of learning disability — not when Ms. Barrett is describing 25% of her university’s student body.

Professors in American universities face a similar challenge:

In a U.S. report released this month, 40 per cent of professors who were surveyed said that most of the students they teach lack the basic skills for university-level work. Further, the survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles found that 56 per cent cited working with unprepared students as a source of stress.
Here’s my personal anecdote. In the 1990s, I returned to university as a “mature” student (i.e., I was in my mid-thirties). I had the advantage of a previous degree (in Theology) and a decade of real life experience behind me.

One of the first-year courses was explicitly designed to help students make the transition to university life. The first assignment we were given was a very simple one. We were given an article to read. The assignment was to summarize it.

I got 10 out of 10. It doesn’t strike me as much of an achievement because the assignment was dead easy. But the professor was very impressed by my work — so impressed that he took me aside after class to demand an explanation!

Most of the students missed the point of the assignment. They went straight into “critical thinking” mode, explaining why the author was dead wrong, and asserting an alternative point of view.

I thought this was pretty bad. Imagine graduating from high school, and you can’t simply read an essay and accurately summarize the author’s argument. It’s a core skill. You can’t critique somebody else’s position until you first understand it from that person’s vantage point.

But maybe I was too tough on my fellow students. If they had any writing skills whatsoever — if, for example, they knew the difference between “then” and “than” — they were the cream of the academic crop.

*Sigh*. I hope the education system in the UK is a good one, or the Western world will be surpassed by Asia before we realize what’s happening.

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