Update –

… an update on the previous post, that is. Simen took issue with the way I arranged my second quadriform. He suggested it should look something like this:

Simen's quadriform

Simen correctly perceived that I was thinking of two continuums (continua?):

Certainty and uncertainty is one continuum, belief and lack of belief is another.

The shift from atheism to fundamentalism is an increase in belief; so is the shift from agnosticism to moderate theism.

The shift from agnosticism to atheism is an increase in certainty; so is the shift from moderate theism to fundamentalism.

It is the introduction of a second continuum that rescues us from binary opposition (atheist/theist) and opens up a range of complexity that is truer to human nature.

March’s End

March had one brief little stint where it decided to fight back against the warmth, but compared to many other years, the “in like a lion, out like a lamb” adage simply does not seem applicable. As we come to the end of the month, days of 10+ degrees Celsius are the norm. I am now biking in a t-shirt, and would love to break out the shorts if it weren’t for fear that a cold spurt will arrive on that one day that I remove my pants’ legs. Some interesting pictures of the transition of the campus, though… I do love the Trent campus! It is definitely the greatest asset of the university, even beating out its small class-sizes in my mind.

Ole Bata Library, just before winter. You can see the build-up of ice around the sides of the river, and the lower sun-angle allowed for a nice shot of it shining through the upper windows.

The library again, this time nearing the end of the winter season. The sun has climbed some, and the ice is beginning to melt (as is evidenced by the water on top of the ice, not just around it.)

BL just this week. Even the light has shifted incredibly to reflect the time of year! Something about the colouration is just warmer than the first picture (the second is, unfortunately, slightly overcast.)

My favorite little rock along the path. It’s not really that little. Winter, clearly.

Early March meltdown has left the rock bare.

Once again we can see a slight difference in the lighting despite the shots being taken on the same day of the week, at the same hour approximately.

Here’s the rock’s inscription… hard to read because of the slight rust in certain letters.

A series of metal poles which I had to think about before I could figure out its use. Any guesses as to what normally sits there?

Canoes! While no one has been out on the water yet, as far as I know, they’re there and ready for the renting! And even the water is bracing itself for the season!

Here’s the water in the winter, glossed-over with a thin layer of ice (which got thicker, naturally!)

Meanwhile here’s the (almost) ice-free stream of water that runs through our campus, looking primed for those avid fans of water sports. That includes swimming — I’m sure some people have done it already! — but the fact that we are downstream from a sewage plant deters most people.

Of course, I personally also prefer to refrain from hypothermia-inducing activities, but hey, it’s a university! Just cause we’re all faceless numbers doesn’t mean that some of us aren’t slightly wonky!


On not reducing the world to black and white

I could have titled this post, Quadriforms as a tool to avoid binary opposition, but I feared people would immediately stop reading! Instead, let’s begin with a concrete illustration: both to introduce a somewhat abstract concept and, hopefully, to engage the reader.

1. The harm that results from binary thinking:

George Bush is a prominent example of someone who thinks in binary terms. The statement, “You’re either with us or you’re against us” is an obvious example. In other words, there are only two options, however they may be characterized: with/against, us/them, yes/no, white/black, good/evil, etc.

President Bush implied the same thing when, on another occasion, he described certain countries as forming an “axis of evil”. The implication is, The world consists of good guys and bad guys, at both the individual and the national levels.

Bush in white cowboy hatWherever he looks, President Bush evidently sees cowboys in white hats vs. outlaws in black hats. And such a claim may be defensible in rare instances. World War II and 9/11 are the exceptions that are normative for President Bush. (But even here, the idea of “pure evil” is arguably misguided.)
To think in binary terms encourages conflict rather than reconciliation. Thus President Bush is one of the most polarizing figures in the world today. (Notwithstanding his claim, “I’m a uniter, not a divider”.) It isn’t a coincidence: it is an unavoidable consequence of his binary worldview.

Moreover, to think in binary terms results in a loss of moral perspective. “Good guys” can do no wrong because their goals are just. Therefore even torture can be justified, so long as the good guys are doing it.

Religion provides a second prominent example. Christianity, Islam and other faiths must resist a natural tendency to think in binary terms: us/them, believers/unbelievers, saved/unsaved, those who possess the truth/those who are deceived.

I believe the distinction between evangelicals and fundamentalists is legitimate. But evangelicals must exercise constant vigilance to maintain the distinction. To some extent, evangelicals necessarily share the binary worldview of the fundamentalist — thus the natural affinity between George Bush and conservative Christians in the USA.

2. An alternative way of constructing the world:

In a previous post, I mentioned that Sam Harris would like to obliterate the distinction between “moderate” Christians (whatever that may mean, exactly) and fundamentalists. In other words, Harris advocates a binary worldview: theists/atheists. Here Harris makes “strange bedfellows” with the fundamentalists he loathes.

But what is the alternative? How can we conceptualize the world so as to capture at least part of its complexity, instead of thinking in reductionist, binary terms?

I came across an answer in a surprising source: Appearance & Reality by Stephen Hogbin. The book is described as “a visual handbook for artists, designers, and makers”. Hogbin utilizes 30 quadriforms to convey his ideas. For example, this one (p. 22):

mind/emotions, body/spirit

The above quadriform isn’t original to Hogbin, of course, as he himself acknowledges. The point is, notice how it sidesteps the potential for binary opposition: on the one hand, between mind and emotions; on the other hand, between body and spirit.

By incorporating these four elements of the human psyche, the quadriform creates an open space: akin to a narrow forest path that suddenly opens up into a clearing. An individual may conceive of himself or herself as belonging anywhere within that space, instead of being limited to the usual binary left/right choice.

Other examples come readily to mind. For example, here’s a quadriform that Sam Harris would do well to contemplate:

fundamentalist/atheist, moderate/agnostic

The fundamentalist and the atheist represent one continuum. They have something significant in common: they are both relatively certain of what they claim to know.

The moderate theist and the agnostic provide a cross-cutting continuum. Moderates and agnostics alike acknowledge the uncertainty of all human knowledge of ultimate realities. Therefore both remain open to competing points of view.


Admittedly, the quadriform cannot capture the full complexity of human experience:

Nothing is so simple that it can be placed only or always in four ways, but this does offer a start to the inquiry. … The elegant simplicity of a neat experiment carries with it the danger of losing important phenomena, so it is well to think of the quadriforms as a broad map and not as a substitute for the complexities of life. (Hogbin, p. xii)

However inexact the fit may be, the quadriform has its merits: it reminds us that a binary worldview is simplistic and necessarily leads us into error.

Book binge

book bingeThose of you who are avid readers may want to join the book binge MaryP is hosting in April. Students are welcome to participate: assigned reading counts!

American Disgrace

I am afraid I am not incredibly versed on the way the American political system works. However, I do know that there is an issue with Bush having presidential status, but both the congress and senate being Democratic majorities currently. That’s the simple background to the speculation that there will be a deadline set for a withdrawal in Iraq.

Well, the most recent development I have seen is an out-and-out refusal of Bush to accept these rumours found here. The piece pretty much says it all in the title… Bush has actually stated he will Vito.

Now, I don’t know much about the system, as I said, but I imagine that the use of Vito power is generally pretty frowned upon, similarly (although not nearly to the same extent) as it once was when the Queen was able to Vito Canadian decisions. While it is allowed, I don’t think I can recall there being commentary on it in the American system recently, so either it hasn’t happened, or they take it very lightly, which I find hard to believe.

Why do I doubt it? Because it seems to me that, even though the American people elected Bush in, that his decision to Vito something of that caliber would be fairly anti-democratic of him. The choice by the people to bring in Democrats in both other houses (is Bush a house?) seems a clear move away from the Republicans and supporting the Iraq war. Now, I am tempted to say let them suffer the consequences of having re-elected the man, but I see a larger issue here. Issues have been approached in political science class and in some of the blogs (such as my father’s)about certain policies of the US that are fairly anti-democratic. The US imperialism is a widespread complaint in the university right now. Issues such as civilian casualties, torture (the one covered by dad), and even policing in the States have come up as ways the US abuses its power in the modern world. But somehow, the direct refusal to acknowledge what the citizens of the country that he is directly sovereign over seems to contradict the values of democracy at a whole other level. To see that Bush would go so far as to blatantly refuse to acknowledge that there is a lack of support for the war suggests to me that the imperialism in his own country is as out of hand as elsewhere in the world, and that is a frightening thought.

I am not debating the Iraq war here. I think the war is wrong, but I do not necessarily think that it is a wise decision to pull out ASAP, because civil war will certainly break out and Iraq will be in news headlines for a long time to come. But regardless of the decision’s validity at a practical level, the truth is that Bush is countering all of the values he claims to be “protecting” in other countries. Once again, that is open to debate whether he is or is not actually seeking democracy (I tend to think Bush thinks of that ideal like the Europeans used to think of the “White Man’s Burden”), but clearly he is no longer practicing it, either out of blatant disregard for the ideals he claims to uphold, or because he is desperate to preserve a situation that has gotten far out of hand.

It’s really a pity, too, since he could actually collaborate with the two houses in order to come to some sort of quasi-solution that compromises between his needs and the citizens’. Instead, he is so obsessed with his war that he fails to recognize how much harm he is causing on the home front.

Real feminists don’t have breasts

“Little things please little minds.” Sometimes not-so-little things:

Valenti with Clinton

The photo (cropped from the original, which includes a larger group) looks pretty innocuous, right? But it has created a great stir in the blogosphere — twice! The original stir happened six months ago and it’s back in the spotlight again this week.

It helps if you know that Jessica Valenti, the woman in the grey sweater, is a feminist who contributes to the blog, Feministing. Note that Jessica is white; she has brown hair; and she has breasts. OMG, she and Monica Lewinski are virtually indistinguishable! (Not really. Perhaps Valenti looks a little like Paula Jones.)

According to Valenti’s critics, she is pushing her breasts forward so that Bill Clinton can’t help but think, “I must have that woman. Maybe I can come up with an excuse to go into the broom closet with her.” In other words, this feminist is using her body parts to curry favour with a powerful man.

This major news story first hit the blogosphere in September, when Ann Althouse jumped all over it. Now it’s getting renewed attention after Althouse had a total meltdown in an interview on bloggingheads.tv.

(It’s available on Youtube, of course. But it’s not worth watching, unless you’re titillated by the sight of a presumably rational adult throwing a hissy fit. In brief, the interviewer (Garance Franke-Ruta) made a perfectly innocent reference to the “the whole sort of Jessica Valenti breast controversy,” which was enough to send Althouse into a rage. Althouse accused Franke-Ruta of character assassination and indeed, of assaulting her!)

Does the photo really warrant this much attention? Andrew Sullivan nails it: “It’s amazing what two boobs, Bill Clinton, and a blog can foment, isn’t it?”

But maybe the controversy illustrates a serious issue. As Valenti lamented back in September:

Things like this remind me that no matter what I do or accomplish, because I’m a young woman all I’m good for is fodder for tacky intern jokes and comments that I don’t “represent feminist values” because of the way I posed in a picture.

What’s worse is that this comes from other women, other progressives, and other supposed feminists. How are we supposed to move forward as a movement if we’re busy bashing each other with this ridiculousness?

I don’t know anything about Jessica Valenti, so I can’t comment on her intelligence or the substance of her feminism. But the above point is certainly valid: why are women so often in the business of putting other women down? Aren’t feminists supposed to oppose behaviour detrimental to the advancement of women?

I’m reminded of one of the Church Fathers, who castrated himself in his zeal to obey Mt. 19:12. I guess a real feminist would have her breasts removed.

Previous Older Entries