"Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it." --G.K. Chesterton

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The cult of the pink shirt

Well, I survived Pink Shirt Day yesterday without wearing pink. But that doesn't mean I wasn't thinking about the pernicious practice of bullying and also about the troublesome aspects of the current anti-bullying climate. I'm glad to see that the Province newspaper is also on my wavelength; its front-page featuring of Jon Ferry's column (which I Facebooked about yesterday) was right on the mark.

Tellingly, at a meeting of a local organization yesterday, a pink-shirt-wearing board member congratulated me on the nice pink shirt I was wearing. He did it with such a straight face that I thought for a moment that maybe I had made a mistake and had actually worn one. Turns out he was just ribbing me, but it was the sort of "kidding on the straight" or "happy-faced criticism" that is designed to make a point.

But what exactly is going on when this sort of thing happens -- when you know you're taking a brave step by not wear a pink shirt? And where is it leading? On the latter question, I think that, given the direction we're going, popular culture will soon be treating bullying victims as quasi-celebrities. And, perversely, that will only encourage more vulnerable people to assume the mantle of victimhood. Can we be far from the day when emotionally needy teens willingly take on the role of bullying victims so they can be "special" and stand out? Remember: "that which you celebrate you encourage."

And given this, can we be far from the moment when we see a youngster strolling in the mall wearing a button reading: "PROUD to be a victim of BULLYING."  It seems far-fetched, but it may yet come to pass.

Ever since the media frenzy over Amanda Todd's suicide, I have been increasingly concerned about the simplification, sensationalization and politicization of the bullying issue. One of the concerns, specifically related to Todd, was a possible unintended consequence of publicizing teen suicides -- that of perversely persuading teens to contemplate taking their own life. Call this the contagion effect.

On the general issue of bullying, I sense we are in the midst of some sort of moral panic, in which everyone is running around with their pants on fire, united only by their hyperventilated mantra that “we have to do something”.  As one writer put it recently, this has consumed all too much “cultural oxygen.”

Do we really think that wearing a pink shirt will do much more than increase the ratings of the sponsoring radio station and pad the bottom line of clothing retailers? Oh yes, we’ll be seen to be “taking a stand”. But what will we do back home, in the workplace, at the community centre, or in school on the other 364 days of the year?

Slate.com editor and New York Times writer Emily Bazelon has written an important new book called Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. In a recent interview with the National Post, Bazelon said she believes people at large are ready for a more nuanced discussion about bullying and less hysteria.  “I feel like [it] was so overblown and sensationalized that there’s a pushback. [Bullying] is a serious problem; it’s just not an epidemic,” she said.

So what’s the discussion we need to have that goes beyond the simple pink-shirt message of “standing up to bullies and stopping bullying when we see it happening”? Is it looking into whether we should enact a bylaw allowing police officers to ticket people who are being impolite or offensive – the sort of talk that could be construed as bullying? A neighbouring city is looking at just such a bylaw. But I, for one, think such a bylaw smacks of Big Sister, nanny-state-ism that sends exactly the wrong sort of message.

What we need to encourage is not rules from on high about how to be polite to each other, but personal responsibility and character-building. And that starts at the home, and then in community gathering places such as churches, synagogues and temples, and then in schools and the workplace. Respect and love others as you respect and love yourself.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – that’s the golden rule, and that’s a fundamentally moral stance that we  -- and by we, I especially mean mothers and fathers – have to inculcate in our children.

So, join the throngs and wear a pink shirt the next time the big day rolls around, if you must. But if you want to do something truly positive, a better bet would be to follow the example of a group of students from Maple Creek Middle School who visited Council a few weeks ago, and perform a Random Act of Kindness.   

Saturday, February 23, 2013

All hail rationality and nuance

The popular culture is drowning in sentimentality and simplification. As an adherent of rational and nuanced thinking, this disturbs me. And it should disturb you, too.

From the gross simplifications surrounding the alleged bullying epidemic to the brainless pap we are constantly fed about climate change, the public understanding about key issues is woefully poor.

Coke's nauseating campaign. (photo from wwf site)
This is why I was heartened, when reading the offerings of two leading Canadian newspapers this morning, to see some clear thinking on the two issues I mentioned above. The National Post's interview with author Emily Bazelon about bullying (not on-line yet, but to be found on A3 of the print edition) is a must read in advance of Pink Shirt Day on Feb. 27. (And, you're correct: I won't be wearing a pink shirt on Wednesday.)

And Margaret Wente's column in the Globe and Mail, about the surprising health of the polar bear population, provides a powerful antidote to the nauseating Coca Cola-WWF save-the-polar-bears commercial pap that's routinely consumed by an easily duped public.

On this latter subject, I wrote an article for the Western Standard six years ago that comes to the same conclusions Ms. Wente has now come to. Here's the link to the story.

Ultimately, the truth will out.

Here's the full text to my polar-bear story:

The bear facts                

Canada’s Inuit say the polar bear isn’t threatened by global warming or hunting
Patterk Netser killed his first polar bear when he was 14, bagged about 30 more over the three decades since, and plans to keep shooting even more until he’s no longer able to hunt – come global-warming hell or Arctic Ocean high water. The hunt makes an Inuit male whole, Netser explains, and it’s just too bad for southern politicians and environmental activists who worry that the polar bear is threatened with extinction. “We are going to continue our hunting, yes,” affirms the soft-spoken Inuit, who lives in Coral Harbour, Nunavut with his wife and six children.

Netser’s opinions on this increasingly controversial subject are important because he just happens to be Nunavut’s environment minister. Moreover, his opinion is especially noteworthy because it not only rebuts southerners’ assumptions about the fate of the polar bear, but also directly challenges some key myths that fuel current global-warming concern.

That the campaign against global warming is an emotional one should go without saying. Most environmental campaigns are. Witness the fact that environmental groups have long focused on big-eyed mammals to pluck the right emotional strings in the hearts of prospective donors. That’s why campaigns against the Newfoundland seal hunt seem never to end, while campaigns to save endangered snakes or insects are non-existent.

And so it is that environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund have begun using images of the polar bear to draw the world’s attention to the global warming issue. Their argument goes something like this: 1. Humans should cut back on their emissions of greenhouse gases because, 2. Those gases are warming the atmosphere at an alarming rate, which means that, 3. Temperatures in the Arctic are rising, which causes, 4. Sea ice to form less frequently, which in turn means that, 5. Polar bears are losing the icy platforms from which they can hunt for seals, which means, 6. The bears might die off because of global warming, which leads directly to the grand finale, which is a plea to, 7. Give us money so we can fight global warming and save the polar bear.

Peter Ewins, the WWF’s Toronto-based director of species conservation, believes polar bear are, indeed, threatened, and makes no apologies for the fund’s new anti-global-warming campaign, in which polar bears are given a starring role. “You can call it an icon, a flagship or a canary in a coal mine,” Ewins says. “This is an indicator of some impact of something that humanity is doing, something that is going on, and it’s expressed in a simple way by the polar bear.”

However, all that’s known for sure about the world’s polar bear population is that it is in flux. It is stable in many areas, decreasing in a few and increasing in a few others, according to a new status table compiled by the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union. Lily Peacock, the government of Nunavut’s polar bear biologist, reveals there are large gaps in the research, and that experts can’t truthfully say whether the overall population is rising or falling. “That’s why, when we talk about the entire world’s population, we say between 20,000 and 25,000,” Peacock says. But if this figure is accurate, then polar bear numbers have actually more than doubled in the past half century. More than half the world’s polar bears can be found in Canada, and about 90 percent of these make their homes in Nunavut.

Concern over the polar bear is directly linked to a single study of one isolated population in western Hudson’s Bay, which found a 25-per-cent decrease in the group’s population. Now, environmentalists are pressing for the U.S. government to list the polar bear as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. There’s also a push to have the bear listed as a species of “special concern” under the Canada Species at Risk Act. Either designation could lead to the curtailing or elimination of the lucrative sport-hunting industry in Nunavut, which McGill anthropologist George Wenzel says pumps $20,000 into the local economy for each of the 70 or 80 bears killed by well-heeled southern hunters every year. “So it’s a significant amount of money,” he says, “especially in a place where money does not grow.”

Sport hunting accounts for only about 17 percent of the annual polar-bear harvest. The rest are taken by Inuit hunters for food and the sale of furs, which can fetch about $150 per foot, says Wenzel. This hunt is threatened too, but Netser says his people will never give it up because of its profound cultural value to the Inuit. “It gives you a sense of pride on being able to hunt, and I can’t really put it in words, but it is so very important to our culture and society,” he says.

Netser explains that the Inuit have always used their intimate knowledge of their harsh land to manage the polar bear hunt wisely, and they will continue to do so, regardless of outside influence. Their on-the-ground observations tell them that polar bear continue to be plentiful, he says. He acknowledges that the North does seem to be warming: freeze-up comes later and the spring melt comes earlier. But he says the Inuit have always been an adaptable people, and they’ll adapt now. Likewise, he believes the polar bear will adapt too. “In one of the zones, the population is increasing and they seem to be benefiting from the climate change,” he declares.

How so? “They spend more time on land. And there are an abundance of birds nesting in cliffs and in rock. And they hunt them during the summer.” As well, the bear sneak up on seals and walrus that might be basking in the sun. “So they’ve adapted really well.” After all, he agrees, adaptation is the natural way. Science tells us the polar bear themselves used to be land-bound creatures, but adapted to northern climes and to hunting from ice. And so Netser believes there’s no reason they simply can’t adapt again.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Coquitlam loses a cherished citizen

  One of our dear friends, Sue Haberger, passed away a few days ago. Cancer took her away at the relatively young age of 65. I've decided to write about her passing here because Sue was well known in the community in a variety of capacities: as a standout a math teacher at Centennial for many years and then, after "retirement," at Coquitlam College; as a singer with several community groups and as a solo artist with a "genius" memory for lyrics; and, most recently, as a passionate advocate for preservation of the Riverview lands. It was in that context that she and her mom, Liz Rowley, were featured in this Tri-City News story last year. Sue was awarded a Queen's Diamond Jubilee medal last month, but her illness prevented her from accepting the award in person.
  The picture I've reproduced here shows Sue (centre) with her daughter Kristina and mother at Liz's 90th birthday party last month. Sue is survived by those two and her son Erik. Sadly, Sue's husband, Achim (Kim), died last fall, also of cancer. May they rest in peace.
UPDATE: The Tri-City News has now published a lovely remembrance of Sue.