December 7, 2009

Personal Statement Update (The Short Version)

Posted in Gender issues, Public discourse, Women's issues tagged , at 9:58 am by Maggie Clark

I think I’ve perfectly come to an understanding with myself about gender now.

I know I absolutely refuse any “inner gender” label. I know some (not all! not even close to all!) trans persons would insist that I am female (unless I instead defined myself as gender male), because their own perception of inner gender is something that they have felt “from birth,” despite the social and sex-based cues that told them they belonged to a different gender-sex.

I have not felt female “from birth.” In fact, I don’t “feel” female now. I don’t “feel” present in myself at all in a gendered way. The sex-based cues, which cause such immense problems for my ability to identify whether a personal feeling is “legitimate” or based on where I am in my cycle (seriously — I ALWAYS cry two days before my period, and it’s invariably about something that seemed slight beforehand), are a constant threat to my sense of self-identity. Similarly, the social cues, which have led counsellors to call me “broken” or “damaged” when I say my number one desire is not procreation but adoption, and my father to call me a “failure of the genetic code” for being queer and also for desiring to adopt, are another immensely sore point for me.

I know some trans persons feel that my self-identity — as genderless, as human-first — is an implicit attack on their own self-identities. It is not. I wholeheartedly respect and would NEVER challenge the noumenological identity of another human being. You are what you identify yourself as, and you will NEVER see me refute the gender label you give yourself.

I furthermore acknowledge that gender-normativity is an incredible BENEFIT in the gender-binary system we all presently occupy. And I know that in many occasions, I DO pass as gender-normative. So do many other queer persons. So do many transgendered persons. So do many straight, non-trans persons. But the problem with our gender-binary system — the problem shared by trans persons, queer persons, and women (and some men) alike — is that the MOMENT one of us doesn’t “pass” as gender-normative (as in, not fitting the gender archetype prescribed to our perceived sex), we are all at greater risk of violence and discrimination.

This is especially relevant when we look at cases like Jorge Steven López Mercado, a self-identified gay (NOT trans) man dismembered and decapitated and partially charred and abandoned on the side of the road.

I absolutely do not reference his name to politicize his death for my uses. I am very saddened, though not surprised, that his name, and his brutal death, have been applied in this manner already. I instead reference him to point out that whatever he identified as has NOTHING to do with why he died. Because it truly doesn’t matter what nuanced term a victim uses for him or herself. It matters A WHOLE LOT, however, what term the perpetrator ascribes to the victim. Because in any sensible universe, there would be only one term, for everyone: HUMAN. In reality, however, there are more. And therein lies the problem.

In this way, I am firmly of the belief that the violent bigoted see no difference between trans and gay — that they think of trans women as gay men who are trying to “trick” them into being gay as well, by making them fall for “men” dressed like women. The thought experiment I like to use here is of the father who beats his child for playing with dresses and make-up: This action has NO relation to the outcome of the child. The child might end up identifying as gay. The child might end up identifying as transgender. The child might end up as a cross-dressing straight man (a VERY strong portion of the cross-dressing population!). The child might end up as none of these at all! You just don’t know. The ONLY thing this scenario says for certain is that the FATHER has no tolerance for non-gender-normativity. And in his limited experience with non-gender-normativity, he’s more likely than anything to perceive this action as “gay” (in the effeminate sense), and respond with that notion in mind.

What does this have to do with real world outcomes? Everything. It means EVERYONE who might ever have reason not to pass as gender-normative — either by being a born-woman who doesn’t conform to physical or social expectations for her gendered sex, or by being a born-man who doesn’t conform to physical or social expectations for his gendered sex, or by being a trans woman or trans man confronting similar, oppositional expectations due to his her/his gendered sex — is at risk in our system. It means that the targeted or otherwise violent deaths of queer men and women need to be taken very seriously by society. It means that the targeted or otherwise violent deaths of women, period, need to be taken very seriously by society. It means that the targeted or otherwise violent deaths of trans persons need to be taken very seriously by society. And it means that the exploitation and silencing of lived experience from all three groups needs to be taken very, very seriously as well.

But all of this needs to be done for one very crucial, rarely disseminated, wholly universalizing reason: Because the noumenological truth of our self-identities is OURS ALONE. Just as I have absolutely no right to tell a trans person what gender they identify as, no one can tell me I identify as “female” just because society sets out specific gender-female expectations for the sex I was born into, and I don’t identify instead as “male”.

Which means I have every fucking right to say I don’t have an inner gender identity. I furthermore have every fucking right to say I don’t feel “present” within myself at all in that regard.

And it means I can say this about myself without that determination EVER threatening another person’s equal right to whatever inner identity they recognize for themselves.

This is NOT transphobic. This is NOT cissexist. This is the nature of a system where all individuals should be equal, with equal rights and privileges, and equal assurances to the right of self-determination. It is, moreover, the nature of a system where all individuals are, in reality, only equal when they present as gender-normative; and where a slew of variations on our rights and privileges emerges when we, as individuals, cease to perform to that gender-normative standard.

This is what I’ve learned about myself, and the gender-binary we operate in, over the past few weeks. I welcome all comment, from everyone, about their own thoughts about such matters.

All the best, you wonderful human people you!

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June 4, 2009

When the Media’s a Player

Posted in Media overviews, Public discourse tagged , , , , , at 9:34 am by Maggie Clark

I hate to speculate on the “why” of CTVGlobeMedia’s omission from a CTV Southern Ontario news broadcast yesterday, June 3 — but the fact of that omission is troubling enough to merit at least a little consideration.

A few days earlier, The Globe and Mail published a pair of investigative pieces tackling possible misconduct at the Toronto Humane Society: the first, addressing the condition of the animals; the second, building a history of the organization’s long-standing volunteer president. But before the third article, describing the messy bookkeeping associated with lack of funding for essential services, could be published, the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) launched a probe into such allegations.

Though The Toronto Star does not mention The Globe and Mail — unsurprising, as mainstream media generally pretends other media organizations don’t exist (unless they do wrong) — it does state in its brief that this probe was sparked by “a series of newspaper articles in which some people alleged animals were suffering because of a restrictive euthanasia policy.” Seeing as Kate Hammer’s first installment, about just such a policy, was published May 29, and the announcement of the probe came the same day as the second, June 1, it really doesn’t a leap of faith to recognize the correlation between news story and official response.

Of course, The Globe and Mail also readily explains how its three-piece series opened the floodgates of complaints to the SPCA, and created grounds enough for the search warrant that then allowed them to revoke the THS’s affiliate status — but it was obvious that they’d note their role in the on-going case: again, self-promotion is just the nature of the beast.

And, in a way, The Toronto Star likewise managed to promote its own interests in the process — reminding readers of the relevancy of newspapers (and the investigative pieces they bring in) without pointing out which newspaper in particular had achieved this staggering level of community response.

But that’s where it gets especially strange that CTV News avoided any mention about the origins of this SPCA investigation (to say nothing of one launched against the board — and especially the president — by other THS members in the wake of the second series piece): CTVGlobeMedia owns The Globe and Mail, alongside its broadcast networks, so if one medium is so quick to take credit for the upheaval its stories created, why wouldn’t the other even mention this connection — even as it broadcasts photos that the other has in its photo gallery? Thanks to CTV’s news archives, I was able to go back and transcribe their original broadcast, so as to highlight just how many places the omission touches the story of this organization. Bolded text marks content sparked by The Globe and Mail‘s story:

Christine Bentley: “A dogfight is brewing between two agencies who [sic] make their living caring for animals in need.”

Ken Shaw: “The THS is showing its teeth after some allegations that it mistreated some would-be pets. The Humane Society says it has done nothing wrong; CTV’s Austin Delaney is in our newsroom working on this developing story, so, Austin, set the table for us.”

Austin Delaney: “Well, today it’s a bit of he-said, she-said; neither agency is backing down. But the one with the power and the clout says that there are some serious concerns at the THS.

[cut to video] It is anything but business-as-usual at the THS today: Its power to investigate allegations of cruelty to animals are still under suspension from the OSPCA. On Tuesday [June 1], OSPCA inspectors with police on hand raided the society’s River St. headquarters after allegations that some animals were being mistreated. Today [June 2], those same inspectors announced they found four animals in distress.

“Their condition was very serious; it required immediate intervention.” [said Kristen Williams, OSPCA.] “As a result of that findings [sic] we issued OSPCA orders to ensure that their standards of care are going to be met moving forward.”

“You know, we don’t agree with that.” [said Ian McConachie of the THS.] The Toronto Humane society issued its own statement today saying it had been vindicated by the OSPCA. “We feel we are; I mean, their investigation found nothing: they didn’t seize any animals, they didn’t find any major problems at the shelter, and they didn’t find any animals suffering in need.”

But that’s not what the OSPCA inspectors told CTVNews: “Certainly not. We found animals in immediate distress, requiring immediate intervention,” [said Williams.] “And that is something we’re taking very seriously.”

We were given these disturbing pictures from volunteers at the THS. They show animals in dirty cages with empty water bowls. “The dogs’ cages were covered with feces, urine. There was no one there to clean them,” [said one unidentified woman.] “The dog walkers, through compassion, were cleaning cages themselves because there were no staff there to do it.”

There are now calls for the resignation of the THS’s president, and board, ’til the OSPCA investigation is concluded. [cut back to newsroom]

Much of the debate is about how long animals are allowed to suffer before they’re put down. There are allegations that the THS lets them hang on too long, making the animals suffer needlessly. That, too, is now a part of the investigation. I’m Austin Delaney.”

That part about the THS president is what really kills me: It’s an absolute orphan in the midst of this framing of the story, unless you know from The Globe and Mail‘s series that president Tim Trow, volunteer president, personally presides over (or interferes with, depending on which side you’re on in the debate) day-to-day operations, and that a monopoly is perceived on the part of the board through the use of an excessive number of proxy votes left in his hands. In the case of this story, The Globe and Mail‘s series thus absolutely represents an aggregate of sources that would greatly aid in viewers’ understanding of the issue — and leaves a lot of unanswered questions in its absence.

But above and beyond the imperative for journalists to provide as much information as they can about a story (which CTVNews could easily have improved upon by mentioning the original articles) there also exists the need for ownership of allegations — for a measure of responsibility taken at the outset, should it later emerge that allegations spun out of hand or were not fully corroborated in the first place. This especially resonates with me when I recall Tim Trow’s response to The Globe and Mail‘s series, available here, but no longer directly linked (as a related article) with any of the news installments Hammer’s published daily since the OSPCA got involved. There are some interesting counters offered up in this piece, addressing some of the more dramatic elements of the original articles; and it thus surely warrants inclusion in any more complete discourse about what’s going on at the shelter. And yet when The Globe and Mail‘s connection is itself removed from this piece, as it is in subsequent reporting by other news organizations, we essentially see this relevant response become twice removed from the story’s more dramatic and expansive outcomes.

Now, perhaps it’s just not in our media climate to highlight the paper trail for readers, when that paper trail involves other forms of media (or rival media outlets) as key players in a story’s development. Maybe that’s just the way it’s always been, and it happens all the time.

But I for one find the casual use of “some allegations” grossly inappropriate when more concrete information is so readily at hand. And I find myself wondering, too, if it’s thus any coincidence that both broadcast and print journalism are so reluctant to cross-reference other media in relation to top stories, while online journalism — that monolithic tide of change culling revenue streams for both — thrives on just such an interplay of sources.

Maybe CTVNews should do a story on that.

May 30, 2009

Twitter: Cons and… pros?

Posted in Business & technology, Global discourse, Public discourse tagged , , , , at 1:20 pm by Maggie Clark

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of Twitter. I have no account, and despite the number of friends who “tweet” with vigour, no desire to acquire one. If I can conveniently ride out this latest bandwagon to the next, Google Wave, I’ll consider myself very lucky.

From this vantage point, it’s very easy to seize upon any awful news about Twitter and twist it to further my stance. Which is what I was quick to do, when I learned Ashton Kutcher and wife Demi Moore (with 3 million Twitter followers between them) tweeted last week that they would have to leave the site in protest if Twitter pursued plans to make a reality TV show out of the website.

Yes, you read that right: Twitter has in many ways usurped the role of paparazzi, allowing celebrities more direct control over their interaction with fans (so we can all follow the tedious minutiae of their day-to-day lives) — and even leading celebrities to do the unthinkable: post pictures of themselves in less than flattering lights. They’ve become, in other words, almost human.

But, hey, there’s no money in that sort of social convergence, right? So why not turn that nigh-on-egalitarian collective into citizen paparazzi, pitting twitterers against one another in an epic competition to stalk celebrities through the website? Wouldn’t that be fun?!

Do I have a deep and abiding concern for Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore? No. Do I find it typical of the application to progress actively in directions that yield financial gain at the expense of the community itself (and the welfare of members therein)? Yes.

Heaven knows, Twitter wouldn’t be the first website to invade people’s privacy. One need look no further than the origins of Facebook — the initial website a vicious Harvard version of Hot-or-Not? entitled “Facemash,” drawing from the official photos of students at the university and tasking site visitors to decide which student in a pair was hotter than the other — to realize that, even in our purported age of enlightenment, technological advancements don’t always emerge from altruistic roots.

So yes, many a time the social benefit needs to be generated by those participating therein. But there’s fighting tendencies towards elitism and exclusion in supposedly egalitarian circles, and then there’s fighting a company seeking to change much of its original premises.

Users of LiveJournal, for instance — a blogging site that has remained conspicuously off the grid despite the readiness of most sites to link up through Facebook, YouTube, Digg, de.licio.us, VodPod, and other aggregation modules — know the latter fight all too well. Though founded on a pro-user model wherein developers promised to listen to the needs of actual users, and protect them from the pressures of outside interests, LiveJournal eventually found itself compromising these promises time and again — and not just for financial gain.

Many of these changes arose from a simple transition of ownership: for instance, when Six Apart first bought Danga Interactive, Livejournal’s operator, it introduced a sponsored ad system — despite the site’s earlier promise of remaining advertisement free — and eliminated basic accounts for half a year so only paid users could be assured of ad-free space, before eventually reversing the decision. (The above link has a far more nuanced list of compromises therein.)

But Six Apart’s real mistake was mass suspending a slew fan fiction accounts, among other accounts deemed in conflict with the obscenity category in its Terms of Service. Had the company issued warnings, so said communities could properly label and restrict access to controversial content, there might not have been such an uproar; as it was, however, this scandal most assuredly played some role in Six Apart’s decision to sell LiveJournal to SUP, a Russian company interested in the product because of LiveJournal’s huge Russian contingent — and which has since carried on in the tradition of trying to get users to pay for products they’re used to receiving for free.

And yet, oddly enough, the case of LiveJournal allowed me some measure of perspective in response to Twitter’s misfiring play at a reality TV show — because when LiveJournal was sold to SUP, it wasn’t added costs users feared: it was the possibility of censoring and curtailing the expansive voices of Russian dissent that had gathered on the website. As the SUP owner is closely tied to the Russian government, many feared that the sale would serve to break down the walls of freedom of speech and, well, a kind of assembly that had emerged in LiveJournal’s walls.

Similarly, Twitter has done incontestable good in providing a public forum for countries that otherwise lack the same extensive rights to freedom of speech and assembly. In countries like Moldova, for instance, Twitter provided a means for outsmarting government censors, allowing protesters to co-ordinate a rally against “disputed legislative elections.”

And you needn’t ask Jean Ramses Anleu Fernandez if he thinks governments are starting to realize Twitter’s democratic power: For a single tweet urging citizens to withdraw all their money from the state-run bank in response to charges of government involvement in a series of related murders, the Guatemalan faces a ten year sentence for “inciting financial panic.”

Even Starbucks has reason to dread Twitter, the make-up of which allowed a promotional topic (#starbucks) to be “hijacked” by critics of the company’s union-busting tactics.

Of course, no new technology is completely safe from censorship — especially from pros. So, yes, China censors Twitter content — big surprise there! Nonetheless, Twitter’s use and reach in many other regions is quite striking, and deserves to be taken into account.

At the end of the day, though, I still chafe at the direction in which Twitter leads journalistic narrative. It especially dismays me that while we as a society claim awareness of the complexity of contemporary socio-political and cultural issues, members of the media have nonetheless latched on to a medium that allows no more than 140 characters to summarize the gist of any one story.

As a big proponent of the philosophy that writers teach readers what to expect of the media (i.e. with an excess of short pieces acclimatizing readers to shorter attention spans), this seems an agonizing exercise in the death of sustained interest. Studies like this one, amply represented in graph form, serve only to confirm the frenzy with which Twitter allows people to latch on to, and then drop off from, topics of note.

So, no, you won’t find me on Twitter. Like I said at the start, I’m hoping to ride out this service to the next big thing. But in the meantime, is Twitter really all that bad?

Like so much of Web 2.0 technology, it depends what its users make of it.

May 20, 2009

Participatory Government Online: Not a Pipe Dream

Posted in Business & technology, Global discourse, Public discourse tagged , , , , at 8:13 am by Maggie Clark

In an undergad political science course a few years back, I recall being challenged to present explanations for public apathy in Canadian politics. Out of a class of some thirty students, I was the only one to argue that there wasn’t apathy — that low voter turnout among youth was readily offset, for instance, by far higher youth turnout in rallies, discussion forums, and the like. Youth were absolutely talking politics: they just weren’t applying this talk in the strictest of official senses.

My professor always did love such counterarguments, but my classmates never seemed to buy them. Rather, many argued that the “fact” of disengagement was not only accurate, but also healthier, because it meant that only those who “actually cared” about policy would set it. (We were working, at the time, with figures like only 2 percent of the Canadian population being card-carrying party members.) Many of these same students likewise believed that economics was not only the ultimate driving force in our culture, but also the only driving force that could lead; and also that true democracy was unwise because only a select few (I could only assume they counted themselves among this number) were able to govern wisely.

At the time, Facebook was two years old. YouTube was one. And the online landscape, though unfurling at a mile a minute, was still light years from its present levels of group interaction. My sources for the presentation in 2006 were therefore an uncertain medley of old and new media: news articles and statistics; online party forums and Green Party doctrine.

I didn’t have at my disposal, for instance, incredible videos like Us Now, a documentary encapsulating the many ways in which average citizens — seeing truly accessible means of interacting on a collective level with their environment — are achieving great success breaking down the representative government model to something much more one-on-one.

Nor did I have The Point, which provides anyone with an account and an idea the means to start a campaign, co-ordinate fundraising, organize group activities, and otherwise influence public change. (Really, check it out — it’s fantastic.)

And most regrettably of all, I didn’t have the Globe and Mail‘s Policy Wiki.
This last, I just discovered yesterday on BoingBoing.net, when they noticed the Globe and Mail’s newest project on the website: The creation of a collectively developed copyright law proposal, to be sent to Ottawa for their consideration on July 1, 2009.

As a huge policy geek, and a member of the new media generation to boot, I saw this as a goldmine of opportunity — and yet there is plenty else on the website for other policy development, too: discussion forums and wiki projects alike. So of course, in my excitement, I sent the link to a few members of the old generation — only to receive a curious collection of responses, dismissing the above as an exercise in anarchy, while simultaneously criticizing old-school committees as never accomplishing anything properly.

Well, old guard, which is it? Is our present model of representative government failing us in certain regards, and should we thus try to engage different policy-building models? Or is the same model which, despite early challenges to legitimacy, created an online encyclopedia as powerful as the Encyclopedia Britannica, by its very nature as an open-source community project unfit for political consideration?

Us Now makes the point that the internet’s promise of a more dynamic and accessible global community has had many false starts (spam, scams, and the proliferation of child pornography rings come personally to mind). But long before we became cynical of the internet’s capacity to improve our social impact, we as a society were already well used to doubting the potential of our fellow citizens to act intelligently and in the pursuit of the communal good. You can thank Machiavelli’s The Prince, Italo Calvino’s Crowds and Power, and bastardized readings of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations in part for this.

A little while ago, however, I got around to reading John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization, a CBC Massey Lecture Series essay collection about the rise of the management class and the utter reversion of the democracy/free market equation to the extent that the notion of democracy itself has suffered massive political distortion. Written just before the first real explosion of online communal projects — be they open source software, open-access socio-political groups, or information-dissemination tools — what Saul wasn’t able to account for in his work was the balancing force of technology itself. Rather, when he wrote these essays, technology was still very much a cornerstone of continued economic distortions in lieu of real democracy. Now, though, it’s clear that technology created through the corporate model has itself emerged as a platform for participatory government — and thus also as the undoing of those same, hierarchical economic forces. Coming full circle is fun!

So, to get back to this matter of “trusting in the intelligence of individuals, and their capacity to act in the common good,” yes, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence to the contrary on the internet. Heaven knows, for instance, that the low-brow interactions which inspired CollegeHumor.com’s We Didn’t Start The Flame War are in fact a daily, persistent reality online, and make up a substantial percentage of commentary therein.

Yet any parent will tell you that the way to raise a responsible child is to give her responsibilities to live up to; a child entrusted with none will invariably continue to act like one. So rather than using, as a test of our group potential online, those sites that in no way engender a sense of responsibility for our actions, why not look at those sites that do — like ThePoint.com, and the Globe and Mail Policy Wiki?

Furthermore, if our current model of representative government no longer yields the level of public engagement we crave (read: in the ways the government wants to see), maybe it’s because citizens at large haven’t been given the opportunity to feel like real participants at all levels of the democratic process. And maybe, just maybe, the internet not only can change that perception, but already is.

After all, those same students who, in the comfort of a political science classroom just three years back, so boldly proclaimed that collective decision making was a waste of time? You’ll find every last one on Facebook and LinkedIn today.

May 1, 2009

Death by any other name

Posted in Military matters, Public discourse tagged , , , , , at 9:57 am by Maggie Clark

Major Michelle Mendez, a Canadian soldier stationed in Afghanistan, was on her second tour in the region when found dead in her sleeping quarters at Kandahar Airfield. Hers marks the third death of a Canadian woman, and the 118th fallen Canadian, in Afghanistan since our involvement in the conflict began. The media has done an exemplary job of presenting Mendes in the respectful light afforded all Canadian soldiers lost in this conflict — and perhaps with extra care, too, because hers marks the second female fatality in as many weeks — but one word is pointedly absent from all talk of her “non-combat death”:

Suicide.

According to the Canadian military, an investigation into the circumstances of her death is still ongoing: evidently the possibility of her firearm accidentally discharging has not been entirely ruled out, though The Globe and Mail reports that “a Canadian government source said ‘all evidence points toward a self-inflicted gunshot wound.'”

The prominence of this story, and the blatancy of the aforementioned omission, have piqued my interest. The debate about whether or not to talk about suicide in newspapers, and in what ways, with which emphases, has been waged for decades. The argument ultimately centers on two points: the quest for greater public understanding, and the fear of inducing a copycat effect among readers. To this end, there are fierce defenders of different approaches — each backed by their own body of research and professional opinion. Last year The Newspaper Tree wrote an editorial responding to reader concerns over the term’s use in relation to one case: therein they noted that certain organizations of mental health professionals agreed it was better to tell readers the cause of death, but that the stories needed to be presented with the “valuable input of well-informed suicide-prevention specialists” in order to be effective. In that same year, Media Standards Trust published a firm condemnation of suicide stories, citing the high statistical correlation between published stories and copycat suicides.

My problem with the omission approach, however, is its selectivity: Suicides are deemed taboo, but the publishing of violent domestic deaths? murder-suicides? school shootings? isn’t — and all of these stories arguably pertain to people in even more disturbed mindsets (one, because I do not hold that everyone who commits suicide is “disturbed” in the sense of having lost their ability to reason; and two, because their acts take the lives of others, too). A recent Times article asked if the copycat effect was being felt here, too, pointing to the lone study that has been completed to date on the theme. The article also developed a short history of the copycat effect in media, which reads as follows:

The copycat theory was first conceived by a criminologist in 1912, after the London newspapers’ wall-to-wall coverage of the brutal crimes of Jack the Ripper in the late 1800s led to a wave of copycat rapes and murders throughout England. Since then, there has been much research into copycat events — mostly copycat suicides, which appear to be most common — but, taken together, the findings are inconclusive.

In a 2005 review of 105 previously published studies, Stack found that about 40% of the studies suggested an association between media coverage of suicide, particularly celebrity suicide, and suicide rates in the general public. He also found a dose-response effect: The more coverage of a suicide, the greater the number of copycat deaths. (See pictures of an exhibit of Columbine evidence.)

But 60% of past research found no such link, according to Stack’s study. He explains that the studies that were able to find associations were those that tended to involve celebrity death or heavy media coverage — factors that, unsurprisingly, tend to co-occur. “The stories that are most likely to have an impact are ones that concern entertainment and political celebrities. Coverage of these suicides is 5.2 times more likely to produce a copycat effect than coverage of ordinary people’s suicides,” Stack says. In the month after Marilyn Monroe’s death, for example, the suicide rate in the U.S. rose by 12%.

Journalists have a responsibility to the living. We have a responsibility to give readers the best means necessary to make informed decisions about the world around them. This also means doing the least amount of harm. In the case of suicide, this measure of harm is difficult to assess at the outset, as even the very language of the event is against us. To “commit suicide” bears with it the gravitas of an age when suicide was deemed a crime, not a tragedy — and not, in some cases, a release from untreatable pain. To “take one’s own life” is a step up — dramatic, but delicately put — though it is unclear if one term is preferable to the other in keeping the copycat effect to a minimum.

That effect itself also plagues me, because I have to wonder if it occurs in part because there isn’t enough reporting: if all suicides were listed as such (3,613 in Canada in 2004; 32,439 in the U.S. — roughly 10/100,000 for each population), and those suicides were contextualized by similar tallying of all deaths (drownings, the flu, and other causes of death with much higher population tolls) would that copycat effect drastically diminish over time?

I can only speculate. Meanwhile, another telling question has a more interesting answer: Can the news provide the requisite depth and breadth of coverage on mental health issues without the direct mention of suicide? In answer, I refer you to this piece from The Globe And Mail, which delicately tackles mental health in the Canadian military as a hot topic arising from Mendes’ “non-combat death,” while the Canadian Press approaches the issue from the vantage point of the female chaplain who presided over Mendes’ ramp ceremony.

There are, then, ways to nod to the issues surrounding suicide without using that word directly. But are they enough? Or does the omission of the word, in conjunction with so much open commentary about related issues, create a different reality — one in which suicide, lacking its public face, becomes at best a vague and theoretical matter?

These are difficult questions, and they grow more difficult when addressing systemic suicides — as exist among many Aboriginal communities in Canada, as well as among military personnel — and when suicide strikes the very young. To whom does the journalist owe her ultimate allegiance: the grief-stricken families, the immediately affected communities, or the public at large? How can we use the fact of suicide to better our understanding of this world we live in? Are we forever doomed to make things worse by the mere mention of suicide’s existence?

Two days ago I watched Rachel Getting Married, a film about a woman who comes home from rehab to take part in her sister’s wedding. A great many difficulties unfold as this woman struggles with guilt and self-hatred, coupled with depression and suicidal tendencies. Watching this film, I registered numerous “triggers” in myself, and cycled for a day and a half back into certain, terribly familiar mental routines. It was then, as I reminded myself that most people likely wouldn’t have had the same reaction to this stimulus, that it struck me: I will never be completely rid of these thoughts, these propensities to cycle between contentment and depression. Anything — a movie, a newspaper article, an off word from a close friend — might trigger them, and then it will be my responsibility to take control of these impulses: acknowledge them, experience them, and move past them.

I know, too, that eight percent of Canadians live with depression, and that at least 16 percent will experience a period of depression at some point in their life. I know I’m on the lucky side of this spectrum: I’ve learned how to counter the anxiety that often pushes depression to the brink, and after years of very extreme engagements with my mental health issues, they are manageable for me. I know this isn’t the case for everyone. I think to myself, what if someone in a much more agitated or suggestible state of mind watched this film instead — or others, with far more tragic endings? What if that was all it took, and the film pushed them to the brink?

Yes, a film or song or book could move someone to suicide. Most likely, it has already happened a lot. In short, anything could be a trigger; anything might be the last straw. But art, like the media, has as its higher purpose the construction of conversations about the world we live in, and how we live within it. So if there is a way to address suicide directly in the news — with the aid of suicide prevention experts; with a fully conveyed understanding of the context in which suicide operates; and with absolute respect for the families and friends each instance affects — I think we need to take it. To do otherwise, for me, is to leave each victim as alone in death as they surely felt in the lives they chose to end.

And honestly, that’s just not something I can live with.

April 18, 2009

The Heart of the Matter: A Shifting Social Discourse

Posted in Global discourse, Public discourse tagged , , , , , at 2:57 pm by Maggie Clark

A very important transition is occurring in North America, and I suspect it will still be another year or so until we grasp its full implications. Just a few weeks back, Chinese financial leaders suggested changing the world’s standard currency from the dollar to a global currency reserve, and UN economists have since backed this proposition. This move would mark a shift away from the U.S. as the source of global financial stability, and towards a preexisting global discourse that will at last be given its own voice, even if North American still plays a large role in the debate.

I suspect the same is very much true for socio-religious discourse: While George W. Bush was in office, the rise of right-wing Christianity in conjunction with the U.S.’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq launched a polemic debate between Christians and Muslims — a West meets Islam, “U.S.” vs. them affair. Moreover, the rise of a particular brand of Christianity — politically-motivated Evangelical Christians — created in its own right a series of related conflicts on the home front, such that Evangelical resistance to the theory of evolution in classrooms, global warming in government policy-making, expansive rights for women and the LGBT/IQQ community, and various issues pertaining to “morally acceptable” content on national airwaves garnered excesses of media attention and political sway.

Now, though the politically-motivated Evangelical Christian community still amounts to a sizable social force, the media portrays a very different, more long-standing socio-religious battle: the conflict between Israel and the Arab world.

In this ideological warfare, North America undoubtedly still plays a crucial role, but in the last few years this role has shifted from one of proactive engagement to one of passive response. The U.S. has always been deemed pro-Israel, regarding the country as a beacon of hope for stability and the eventual spread of democracy in the Middle East. However, the U.S. simultaneously relies upon strong business relations with nations in the Arab world, and to this end has equally supplied many such countries with arms, money, and the maintenance of dictatorships that suited U.S. interests. This has always made its involvement in the region self-motivated.

Post 9/11, that involvement necessitated a stronger alliance with those who would fight against U.S. enemies in Afghanistan; later, it also meant stronger alliances with those who would support Americans in Iraq. But times have changed. Immigration from the Arab world into Europe created stresses from which controversial national leaders and extreme anti-foreigner stances have emerged. The two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, once a viable discourse with its very own “road map” to peace, is no longer a welcome solution for many in the region. And here in North America, every political decision is becoming increasingly mired in questions of perceived Islamophobic, Zionist, anti-Semitic, pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli, anti-Palestinian, pro-terrorist, and anti-terrorist allegiances.

This is not by any stretch of the imagination to argue these terms weren’t bandied about before — of course they were. But what has been lost in recent months, from a socio-religious context, is a sense of North American values having any measure of relevance in the debate. Even terrorism is not being engaged as something feared again on home soil; rather, those terms, like their aforementioned brethren, time and again reroute discussion to the matter of the Middle East.

An excellent example of this arose quite recently, in the matter of George Galloway. Galloway is a five-time British MP expelled from the Labour party for extremely controversial comments made in response to Britain’s invasion of Iraq. He has toured Britain and the U.S., working with many causes: some clearly humanitarian, many others complicated by statements that have brought UN condemnation upon him, and actions that have blurred the lines between humanitarian aid and front organizations for personal gain. (I won’t make a habit of this, but there are so many controversies pertaining to his views, actions, and travels that I’m going to recommend reading his Wikipedia entry — no one mainstream article on the man comes anywhere near as close.) On March 20, 2009, he was denied entry into Canada, on the basis of his ties to Hamas: though he has gone on record stating that he does not agree with Hamas, Galloway gave the government $45,000. As Hamas is on Canada’s list of terrorist organizations, this was enough to deny him entry, though Canadian immigration ministry spokesman Alykhan Velshi’s comment on the issue is a little more dramatic than that:

The Telegraph — Immigration ministry spokesman Alykhan Velshi said the act was designed to protect Canadians from people who fund, support or engage in terrorism.

Mr Velshi said: “We’re going to uphold the law, not give special treatment to this infandous street-corner Cromwell who actually brags about giving ‘financial support’ to Hamas, a terrorist organisation banned in Canada.

“I’m sure Galloway has a large Rolodex of friends in regimes elsewhere in the world willing to roll out the red carpet for him. Canada, however, won’t be one of them.”

Galloway contested the ban, lost, but got around the ruling by being broadcast via video-link from New York to Canadian locations. And so life went on, with the news turning to “Tea Parties” in the U.S. and Canadian outrage towards the Afghani rape law. Yes, we have plenty of political matters to attend to at home; there is no shortage of issues. But the question posed by the high profile case of Galloway — to say nothing of audience reactions to North American portrayals of recent Israeli-Palestinian disputes and Somali pirates– remains: Which is the greatest? Not in the world at large, per se, as so many cultural wars are played out on that stage every day — but here, at home, in North America? Does our ultimate socio-political investment lie with home turfs, and all the multicultural challenges upon them, or quite literally with foreign lands, and the conflicts waged there instead? If the latter, does this tie our future directly to their outcome? What are the implications (not necessarily negative!) of a national discourse set primarily by the happenstance on foreign soil?

April 17, 2009

Making allowances for human nature

Posted in Public discourse tagged , , , , at 8:28 pm by Maggie Clark

What better way to spend Easter than reading the Bible — am I right?

It’s not the most likely thing for an atheist to say, but I’ve been mulling over the application of Bible verse to contemporary beliefs: in particular, as they pertain to Evangelical stances on issues like climate change. As a friend sagely reminded me, all religious culture comes first — then canon is interpreted to fit it. This is why so many Bible verses might be accepted in one generation, and ignored in the next: Other aspects of human culture change, and with those changes, our engagement with the original texts is also transformed. (One need look no further than the treatment of slavery in the Old Testament to recognize that Abrahamic faiths pick and choose which “hills” they’ll defend in public practice; there are other, social factors that play in to the application of faith.)

And yet, alongside reading the Old Testament, this past weekend I picked up a CBC Massey Lecture series installment — five short lectures from the 1980s by Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing, known best for literature with strong political and feminist leanings. This volume of hers, Prisons We Choose To Live Inside, tackles a most curious social juxtaposition: the fact that we are, as a civilization, more aware than any generation before us of overarching trends, tendencies, and themes in human nature — and yet just as unable as individuals to apply this knowledge to our everyday lives. Lessing herself was drawn up in a Communist party as a young woman; this was in direct response to the egregious abuses of power enacted in her childhood nation, apartheid-torn Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), but as Lessing develops in her lectures, there was just as much propaganda and groupthink necessarily at work among her chosen group as among the corrupt society those Communists were striking out against.

From such personal experiences and relevant academic experiments, Lessing develops the argument that all groups have this propensity towards thinking themselves in the right, and all dissenters as in the wrong; and that this righteousness furthermore flies in the face of the temporary nature of all human resolution. However, argues Lessing, if we were only to make ourselves more aware of the transience of our beliefs — and more willing, too, to accept as human nature the inclination to various trains of thought (polemic argument, for one; and with it an “us vs them” mentality) we might be able to maintain more critical thought even as time entrenches us in one camp, or one label, above all else. We might even be able to make a greater difference in the world: Lessing writes at one point about how the broad condemnation of war will never suffice to eradicate its existence if we don’t acknowledge and accept that some people do, and always will, actively enjoy the exercise of war itself. These more complex analyses are harder, yes, but likely more useful in effecting real-world change, and so at the very least merit an attempt.

But to return to the Bible: Lessing notes that religious and political beliefs share a common propensity towards absolutism and fanaticism — an observation we are all too often loathe to make, though the acceptance of this similarity might help us learn to better converse with those whose viewpoints differ from our own. The depressing truth is that most people are so long trained in empty rhetoric, and so short on the experience and tools needed to engage in formal debate, and most of all so comfortable in their own righteous certitude as to see no reason to second-guess their way of thinking, that even getting everyone to engage in open dialogue is a pipe dream in and of itself.

And yet, let’s say it could be done. What would that look like? How would it be achieved?

These are the questions I was asking myself while poring through the Old Testament this Easter, because I’m still holding out hope that some measure of formal debate might be attained if we in the media are willing to engage believers on their “home turf.” The problem is, is that home turf the religious texts themselves, or the empty rhetoric that often passes for argument in public spheres? (I’m referring here to the singing of songs in response to critical inquiry, the rattling off of catch-phrases, and all in all the extreme use of circular and straw man fallacies to avoid scholastic scrutiny of the verses themselves.)

In the case of climate change, my starting point was simple: Is there any reason Christian Evangelicalism can’t be united with theories of climate change? For many years now, a culture of vehement denial has been maintained in these communities, but why? Does climate change necessarily threaten the precepts of Christian belief? Is it necessarily a challenge to the faith of so many Americans?

From what I’ve been able to discern, there are a few places — some obvious, some less so — where the existence of climate change seems, at least on the surface, to be a threat. The most obvious is a sense of entitlement: Many believe their god gave them this land, and all that exists upon it, to do with as they would. This permits a rather regal lifestyle upon the earth — one in which the fruit of one’s labour may be applied to whatever one deems fit. If climate change has a human origin, and with it comes the cry for the curtailing of excess, this would to many seem a direct challenge to that entitlement. Worse still, it threatens a sense of hierarchy on the planet: God, then man, then the beasts of the earth, then everything else. If the preservation of one species suddenly trumps man’s full enjoyment of god’s gifts, how can that not be considered a threat?

This is where Bible-reading comes in: I wondered if that entitlement were as textually concrete as many Evangelicals make it out to be. True, in the Genesis story the world is created with man its crowning achievement… but that’s Eden. And humankind gets kicked out of it. Much of the New Testament ennobles man’s place at the top of the planetary food chain, but there’s really nothing to suggest that man should feel entitled, after the Fall, to a world as stable and nurturing as Eden. And, after all, Christian nihilists (those who see no intrinsic good in humanity, or this life, without the presence of a god) already regard this world as bleak and secondary — so why can’t the instability of the environment, and human responsibility for the quality of the land they live on, be reconciled with Evangelical thought?

I suspect the answer lies in a deeper threat felt by Evangelicals: namely, that climate change — and with it, the threat to the stability of human life on Earth — has grave consequences for proponents of intelligent design. Evolution presents elements of the world, and all who dwell within it, as “just good enough” — with first successful drafts, as opposed to perfect creatures, being the product of evolution. But intelligent design is argued from a position of precision and perfection, with the human eye especially (bewilderingly, too, for it has many weaknesses and blind spots) used to argue for the “impossible complexity” of the world we live in. From this standpoint, it’s easy to see where climate change can be threatening: If humankind could so easily tip the balance so as to make the world inhospitable, so much for that perfect construction!

And yet, here too, it’s so easy to spin the message so as to fit Evangelical parameters: God gave us a world built so that its fate is determined by human action. Gay marriage = hurricanes, floods, and stabbing death on Greyhound busses (okay, that last is a little extreme). Gluttony and greed = deforestation, unchecked industrialization, and climate change. Causal, not just correlative, relationships are the lifeblood of much religious thought: in a sphere of argumentation that already permits leaps of faith to fill in where empiricism fails, there is no intrinsic reason for Evangelical belief to side against the existence of climate change.

So where does this leave the matter of critical discourse? Well, if it were possible to foster open dialogue about such issues, the aforementioned route seems the likeliest to succeed. But more importantly, I think it has to succeed: in the last week alone we’ve seen much in world news highlighting the need to address intersections between religion and human rights, but still the topic remains taboo. Why? Is it really impossible to talk about the differences between religion and culture, group and individual, or contextual and universal rights without brewing a maelstrom of polemics, empty rhetoric, and broad accusations of various -isms and -phobias from the general public?

Lessing would argue that it is impossible to avoid these manifestations of human nature — but that even then, it is still possible, with an awareness of past behaviours and social constants, to react to these inclinations in a way that counteracts what would otherwise have us forever defining ourselves, and others, in uncompromising blacks and whites.

I really hope she’s right.

March 14, 2009

Why Aren’t We Standing Up To Ad Hominem Attacks?

Posted in Public discourse tagged , , , , at 11:42 am by Maggie Clark

In the wake of the Jon Stewart / Jim Cramer controversy, which I feel was not so much overly hyped as, in its polemic framework, erroneously hyped, a striking point remains unmade: Where was the condemnation of mainstream ad hominem attacks?

Specifically, Joe Scarborough of Morning Joe, by launching a heated attack on Stewart on his show, provides a good example of the kind of argument held by Stewart’s critics all throughout the week of this controversy: Many called him on being a comedian, and condemn him for having critical opinions in this capacity about the statements of others.

People have responded to this condemnation, yes. They have done so by arguing Stewart isn’t just a comedian, noting his strong history of media criticism and notable appeals to journalistic ethics. Not one person in the mainstream media has said, however, “Even if he were just a comedian, would that make his criticism any less valid?”

And that’s a problem. It’s a problem because while many fallacies are very difficult to police (being of the subtler variety), ad hominem attacks are pretty straightforward. Moreover, the ad hominem fallacy in this case is an attack on freedom of speech (in the U.S.) and freedom of expression (in Canada), because by its very nature it implies some people’s arguments are less valid simply because of who is making them, and yet it’s made by people in positions of power — people who, as members of the media, should be empowering everyone to hold them accountable for failure.

So while Scarborough was attacking Stewart for daring to make a critique of CNBC while simultaneously being an entertainer, he (and others like him, in print as well as on TV) was also encouraging the unquestioned use of this fallacy. And that’s dangerous, because Scarborough has privileged access to both the airwaves (which gives him access to millions) and, from his association with notable news organization, a measure of legitimacy (which gives him an edge over pundit bloggers). He is part of a system which sets a standard for casual, daily discourse in North America — and he, like many of the people in these roles — is failing to promote fair, reasoned, empowering conversation in this realm.

The ways in which print, TV, and online articles have used this fallacy are often indirect: Headlines reading “the clown won” after the Stewart/Cramer conversation on The Daily Show are as damaging to the cause of coherent, empowering media discourse as any direct, unchecked statement of “What right does a comedian have to criticize?” could ever be.

And that’s where things get confusing: Why on earth are these statements going unchecked? Where is the dominant culture of critical analysis that curtails, both institutionally and on a case-by-case basis, statements that feed into this “dis-empowerment” of individual viewers?

There was a time when we had few on-air personalities: now we have an excess of them, and the depressing catch-22 is that if the bulk of these personalities don’t regularly remind their viewers about formal argumentative structures, fair comment, and journalistic ethics (which they don’t), said viewers will come to view the kind of argument that exists instead as the right one — fallacies and all. And why should these on-air personalities do otherwise? They were hired because their companies know that entertainment sells, but don’t grasp why Jon Stewart is so successful providing both entertainment and analysis; so these companies treat their forms of entertainment with all the gravitas of serious journalism, even when they’re not. And if a comedian — someone who readily acknowledges that he’s doing entertainment, but maintains a core sense of journalistic right and wrong distinct from his role as entertainer — calls them on it? Well, they’ve got ample public access where they can condemn him for speaking in the first place, instead of addressing his comments, to their hearts’ content. And no one will call them on it, because they’re the ones setting the discourse in the first place, and the discourse they’ve set is of refusing the legitimacy of a comment on the basis of the person who makes it.

… Except that there are people who do ostensibly toil for the protection of U.S. citizens in relation to media abuses. The FCC is vigilant about calling out “public indecency” as it (or rather, the loudest of the interest groups that pressures the FCC) perceives these instances to be. And so we see justice meted out swiftly when a woman’s nipple is shown on national prime-time television, or a children’s cartoon has a character with two moms, or an expletive is used in the wrong time-slot. In all these ways, the general public is kept safe from the excesses of media.

But the unchecked use of fallacies that, by implication, strip an awareness of power from viewers by pushing the essence of American discourse away from what was said, to who said it, and encouraging others to do the same? These are let stand.

I’m not saying the FCC should fine people for unsatiric use of ad hominem fallacy. I’m just saying, Christ, wouldn’t it be great if someone in a position of media authority at least condemned it?