Thursday, November 27, 2014

Beyond Dictionary Fundamentalism

Leaving fundamentalism behind can be a tough process.  Getting fundamentalism to stop following your around after you left can be even harder.

This week I was involved in a very rowdy online interfaith discussion on fundamentalism.  Specifically the claim that fundamentalist Atheists are just as difficult to interact with as fundamentalist Christians.  There were a lot of different opinions on that but interesting to me was the fact that a lot of people claimed the question itself made no sense because there's no such thing as a fundamentalist Atheist.  I'm going to be a total hippie here and disregard everything the dictionary has to say about fundamentalism and give you my personal take on what I feel fundamentalism means and why you can apply it to Atheists.

To me a fundamentalist is someone who values their ideas more than people.  Simple as that. A fundamentalist Christian for instance would be someone who feels telling the world how sinful homosexuality is, is more important than their relationships with the gay people in their lives.  They may recognize the hurt this causes amongst their gay friends and relatives but they will stick to their guns nevertheless because the idea matters more to them than those relationships.  To a fundamentalist Christian it's more important that you know you're going to hell than that you be their friend.  In fact they get taught not to be people pleasers but to fear God more than man. Same with atheism. 

If it's more important to you that people around you know exactly how dumb you think faith is than for you to have a good relationship with them, then you're a fundamentalist atheist.  Simple as that.  If ridiculing your friends' faith means more to you than their friendship, then there is no difference between you and fundamentalist believer.

This goes way deeper than just faith and atheism.  This type of thinking can infect everything from the serious to the innocent.  Feeling that you're right about something can be quite a high and sometimes that high turns you into a mean drunk.  But it doesn't have to.  

Not saying you should change your ideas, you can keep them all.  You can be passionate about them, talk about them, discuss them with all who would listen.  Just don't lose sight of one simple truth - people matter.  It is relationships, not ideals, that make life worth living.  In the quest to be right, don't lose sight of that.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Racist Hole

So it seems everyone's talking about racism these days.  Some are talking about how it's a problem, others are claiming the only problem is that people are still talking about it!  Now I'm going to take a somewhat controversial step here and say that racism is a BAD THING.  Furthermore it's a bad thing THAT EXISTS (whether you want it to or not).  Therefore we should talk about it, even if it makes us uncomfortable.  Bad things that exist do not stop existing when you stop talking about them.  In fact, they tend to thrive in the dark.

OK so maybe now you're thinking "Yay! Another lecture about race!" or maybe "Yay! Another white guy is finally online to explain to everyone how racism works!" but rest assured that is not my area of expertise.  I'm not here to even pretend I know what people of colour go through or how much systemic discrimination can hurt.  I don't have vast qualifications in the area and I'm not here to heal centuries of damage done by racism both overt and subtle.  No, I'm here to talk about race as a reformed racist.  This isn't going to be for everyone.  If you don't think you've ever been racist then you're probably not going to find anything of worth here.  If you're racist and happy with that then I doubt you're going to like anything that follows either.  However if you do know in your heart that you can sometimes be racist and you really dislike that about yourself then maybe my story can help a little bit.

I don't know what your story is or how you came to be you but I used to be racist because I was raised in a small town in Apartheid era South Africa.  Racism was pretty much our way of life.  Growing up, I didn't even consider the names we had for other races to be insults or racial slurs, they were just the names you used to refer to other races.  It's not like we were having big evil meetings and planning to how to make other races miserable, growing up, that was just the only way I knew how to see the world.  OK sure, I had an uncle who ran a whites only resort till way after that stopped being considered OK in this country and who proudly framed the newspaper article on the Indian family he turned away but we weren't all like that.  My parents were pretty liberal all things considered.  Growing up I just thought we were in charge of all the other races for their own good.  Eventually though, Apartheid ended and it was right around the time I was finishing school and had to go away to study in the big city where I finally got to meet and live with other races and that's where things started to change for me.

But this is not the story of how I stopped being racist, I'm just telling you all this so you know where I came from.  I was racist through and through and I saw no problem with it.  Now I do and I try not to be.  Your story may be less severe than that but hopefully you can relate at least somewhat.

OK so with all that out the way I hope you didn't stick around for the secret of how to be cured of racism forever because I can't give you that.  Believe me, if it was possible to make racism disappear through the sheer power of wishing really hard and declaring it to be so then there would be negative amounts of racism in South Africa at this point!  So no, I can't offer you a cure because there isn't one.  Racism - especially if it's something that got deep inside you at a young age - is not like a disease you can just be cured of, it's going to be a part of you for as long as you live.  You can be fine for long periods but every once in a while you're going to get mad and suddenly find a racial slur on the tip of your tongue.  Or you'll be watching the news and see something upsetting and before you even realise it you're saying something not about "that person who did that bad thing" but instead talk about "those people".  Or maybe you won't even be mad, you'll be in a great mood and without thinking make an assumption about someone that is just a horrible stereotype and say something hurtful.  It sneaks up on you.  It's subtle and even with the best of intentions it's going to surface from time to time.

So no, racism is not like a disease or at least not a disease you can take a cure for.  Being racist (while wanting to do better) is more like being on a life long boat journey and your boat has a hole in it.  Often things are going to go fine but every now and again you'll find that something starts leaking through the hole.

So here is my advice, do with it what you will.  Accept that the hole exist, no good comes from pretending it doesn't.   I know it can be more comforting to tell yourself there is no hole and that you're whole and that everything is fine but that's not helping anyone.  Check for leaks often.  When the leaks happen - and they will, don't kid yourself - then stop, clear it out and continue on your journey.  Eventually you may be so good at spotting leaks that you have to spend very little time bailing.  Maybe that never happens and maybe for you this will always be work.  Just remember, it's not a disaster until you decide to give up.  The hole is bad, don't let it fill up your boat.  Facing it head on is hard work but you grow into a better person by doing it.  This is a good work, do not tire of it.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Shut up and listen

Have you heard about those students who came up with the date rape drug detecting nail polish?

When I first saw this news making the rounds on social media I thought it was awesome news!  Unlike a certain locally invented product, this can actually prevent rape from ever taking place so surely this would be good news for everyone (except rapists).  So I was more than a little bit surprised when I saw that a lot of people were actually very unhappy with this development and they weren't rapists, they were my feminist friends!

They were arguing that once again this "solution" ignores the real problem - the rapists - and instead adds yet another weight to the already massive burden we place on women to prevent their own rapes.  Now added to: don't go out alone, don't wear a mini skirt, don't flirt, don't drink too much & don't get separated from your friends we are adding "wear date rape detecting nail polish".  This makes not getting raped the woman's problem and does nothing to stop guys from being rapists.

Now my first response to that was to say, "You know what? I get it!  Teaching about consent should be a prominent part of sex ed and guys need to be taught that sleeping with a girl too drunk to know her own name is not sex but rape, etc BUT those are all long term strategies and this nail polish can help someone right now.  Why can't it all be part of a multi-pronged approach to ending instances of rape?"

But then I went to breakfast.

While waiting for my food I couldn't help but overhear the table next to me talking.  So one young lady at the table seems to be some kind of traveling salesperson, not sure for what and she was telling a story of something that recently happened to her.  She had an appointment with a guy living on a homestead just a bit outside of the city.  When she arrived the guy asked her if she wanted a cooldrink which she declined.  He then became very insistent that she have a drink but she kept on refusing and eventually he said he was going to get himself a drink and she should have one with him.  After clearly hearing him stirring something in the kitchen he returns with one glass and claimed that he had his drink in the kitchen and she should have her drink now.  She still refused and quickly became aware that he had no interest at all in whatever she was selling and was just focused on her drinking her drink.  So she left and now got to tell this as one of those "a funny thing happened to me on the job the other day" stories and not the obvious horror story it almost was.  No, scratch that, it was still a horror story, I was horrified just eavesdropping!  But to her, and I assume her friends at the table, this was just one of those things that happens and you have to deal with.

That's when it hit me.  The truth was that no, I did not actually "get it".  I don't know what life is like for women.  I can't.  Their experience of this world is at time completely alien to mine.  And this goes way beyond that.  There are social, racial and political realities I do not and cannot experience.  Why then do I feel the need to say, "Look guys I may have no experience of your problem but I'm a smart guy so shut up and listen to me while I hand down the solutions to all your problems"?  That sort of thing really makes someone seem like a huge asshole, even if those aren't the exact words used.  I think we all do it sometimes and we probably don't even mean it that way but that is kind of what it sounds like.  At least that's what it sounds like to me whenever the roles are reversed.

So maybe the answer is to not be so quick to give my 2 cents in every single matter.  Maybe the best thing would be for me to shut up and listen.  Really listen, not just wait for an opening to step in and unveil my solution.  After all, even if I'm right, why should anyone give me the time of day if I'm not willing to make a real effort to understand where they're coming from?

Look, I'm not saying you should never get to speak your mind or have an opinion.  But seriously, if you feel the need to always have your opinion heard, valued and admired in every situation regardless of how well informed you are then what kind of person does that make you?

Friday, August 29, 2014

Comment of the year!

OK I know I haven't been blogging as much as I'd like and so I deeply love and appreciate anyone who still bothers to read this blog and that goes double for anyone who still bothers to comment here.  However let it be known that anyone who has ever commented here now has a new comment to try and live up to.  But don't bother, you will never match its pure greatness.


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I think my favourite part is when they warn you about scams.  I mean sure, all the OTHER wizards out there are totally fake but not THIS GUY!

Best part is this was probably left on this blog post because the post itself referenced spell casting (as a joke).  This means the odds are pretty high that this was left by some kind of internet spam bot.  If this was indeed the case then whoever created this spam should not be blocked but celebrated for indeed this has transcended spam and crossed over into art. ART!! 

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Privilege Superpower

Lately the subject of privilege (especially white privilege) has been been generating a lot of discussion.  There was the ivy league kid who wrote an essay on it that went viral which in turn generated a lot of smart responses from smart people. Now since I have both very liberal and very conservative people in my FB news feed I get to read a whole lot about the subject of privilege.  Some insist it's real, others insist it's a myth and some feel hurt at the very mention of privilege, taking it as a personal insult.
and then some of it is conspiratorial to the point of racism
Clearly there are a lot of misconceptions regarding the idea of privilege.  I don't claim to be an expert, I still have a lot to learn but I do know enough to know that a lot of what people seem to hate about it is completely mistaken. Privilege is not so much an insult as a fact of life.  It's not something you're supposed to feel guilty about or apologize for and it definitely doesn't mean you didn't work to get where you are and that you got everything in life for free.  Let's look at it in a completely different way, maybe that will make it clearer:

Imagine you are living in a comic book universe.  You are still you but you share this planet with the like of Superman, Green Lantern and the rest of the Justice League (or Spiderman, the X-men and the Avengers if you prefer).  You are a human but they are SUPERhuman.  How would you feel about that?  Would you demand that Superman apologize for being born on Krypton?  Would you want him to feel guilty for his ability to be faster than a speeding bullet?  I'm guessing you won't.  I know I wouldn't mind them because while they have abilities I don't, they use those abilities to do good things.

But say there was this apple orchard that advertised a free apple picking day.  Gates open at 8 AM and you get to keep all the delicious apples you pick.  So you show up at 7 but find that Superman and The Flash are also in line and the second the gate opens they run in at super speed and pick all the apples in a nanosecond.  Would you be OK with that?  How would you feel if you confronted Superman about the ton of apples he was carrying out and he said "Well I just picked apples as fast as I could with my friend here, why didn't you do the same?"?  That would be a dick move, wouldn't it?

OK!  Now you understand privilege!

See, we don't live in a comic book universe but we still have a world where some people have superpowers.  Sure they're not as spectacular as being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound but they are real and they do offer real advantages.  Let's take a very easy one that's easy to overlook - having parents that are alive and who love you (and for the sake of this example live above the poverty line and have disposable income).  Now that will most certainly make your childhood a lot easier than those who either do not have parents or those who have parents that are around but are indifferent or abusive.  But it doesn't stop there though, this is a superpower that can empower you for years.  If this is a superpower you have then you probably have help getting through college and you don't have to clear the hurdle of doing it all by yourself.  Of course you're still going to have to study and work hard to get through it, no one is trying to deny that, but you have people in your corner who are supporting you in every way they can, emotionally and financially.  Then when you are done with college this gives you the power to start a business in your parents' garage (because you have parents and they have a garage).  Or maybe you don't, maybe you go out there and try things your own way and you get to, because if you over reach and it all comes crashing down then you have a place to go back to.  The superpower of parents means you are never going to be in freefall all the way to the gutter, you have a home to go back to and regroup (free of charge).  It may be humbling, it may be downright humiliating but it's a damn sight better than ending up on the street.  But maybe you don't start a business, maybe you get married instead and that marriage turns bad.  Having parents that would take you in can make all the difference in the world.  You don't have to stay in an abusive relationship because your options are not stay or starve.  You have parents, you have a safety net, you have a superpower.  It's not something to be ashamed of and it's most certainly not something to apologize for but surely you can see that this is an advantage to have?  Fact is, not everyone has this advantage.

That is how privilege works.  It's not about getting everything for free, it's about having less hurdles to clear in the game of life.  You still have to work, you will still have to overcome, but you have certain superpowers to help you out.  Imagine your life as it is and as an able bodied person.  Now imagine how your life would have been if you had been born disabled.  Still the same life or would the road to getting where you are now have been much harder?  Having sight or hearing or the use of your limbs don't seem like much when you've always had them but they allow you a certain level of ease in life that you don't even realize.  Sometimes the superpower you have can even be as simple as the ability to fit in.  When you belong to a racial group or a gender or a sexual orientation or a religion that is different from the majority of people around you then fitting in is harder while fitting in perfectly just streamlines your voyage through life.  Not very spectacular I know but not even having to consider the obstacles others have to overcome just to be on the same playing field as you is pretty much a superpower if you think about it.

So what then do you do about this superpower?  Well if you have one or more superpowers the good news is that you don't have to feel guilty about it!  Not at all!  You don't have to apologize either!  Rather, be like those in the comics who have superpowers and use your superpowers for good.  Great news!  Using the superpower of privilege doesn't require you to fight giant robots or monsters from outer space.  You don't need to go save anyone.  Through the simple act of acknowledging your own privilege superpowers and noticing how that changes your world as opposed to those who do not have them can be a pretty radical act.  In our world some voices carry more weight than others.  You don't need to swoop in like a mighty hero and speak on their behalf, just give those voices space to be heard.

But fine if you don't want to do that then at the very very very least, don't be a ass about it.  Don't be like Superman and Flash at the apple orchard and pretend like the playing field is equal and that everyone else in the world can do what you did if they just weren't so damn lazy.  Seriously guys, don't do that.  It's a dick move, don't do it.  You (probably) have (some) superpowers in life in and if you're not going to use it to help then at least acknowledge the fact that you have them and have some compassion for those who do not.

But whatever you do, PLEASE do not use your superpowers to oppress those who do not share them.  That makes you a supervillain.  Don't be an asshole but especially don't be a supervillain.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The light in her eyes

Sometimes you can see the future.  It doesn't require anything supernatural, sometimes the dominoes are just stacked so clearly you can see exactly were they are going to fall the moment one gets pushed.  That's how on Monday I could see where I was going to stand on Friday.  I didn't know it was going to be Friday but I knew it was going to be soon.  I tried to stop the dominoes from falling but some things move with far more force than I have the strength to push against.

I wrote before about my dachshund Jackie (who is not technically "my" dachshund) and how the people who do actually own her have been talking about having her put down because of her age.  I would hear none of it because while her body may have been aging the spark of life was still burning very strong in her.  So I've been doing everything I can to make sure her age doesn't manifest in ways that gives anyone ideas.  I made her a big landing pad of pillows and blankets by my bed so she can sleep there and still jump off the bed without injuring herself.  When she started having little accidents in the house I made sure everything was cleaned up nicely before anyone else could see.  When she didn't want to chew her dry dog food anymore I started adding some wet dog food to it so it goes down easier.  Stuff like that.

Lately though it's been getting harder.  It's like she suddenly became a lot older the last couple of months.  I think she was getting dementia because I found that the reason she was having accidents in the house was not because she was incontinent but because she seemed to get lost in the house.  She would walk towards the doggie door and then take some wrong turns or get turned around and just end up going in the wrong place.  Last week she wandered into the garage and got locked in there accidentally and usually we would know because she would start yelping until someone came to rescue her but if I didn't go look for her she might have stayed there all night.  So I started carrying her outside and turning on a light whenever it looked like she needed to go, and then carrying her back to bed when she was done so she wouldn't wander around the house and end up sleeping on the cold floor.

So this Monday afternoon when she started throwing up everything she ate I could see the future.  I knew that I was going to have to take her to the vet and that once we went to the vet she was never going to come back home again.  So I did everything I could to stop that first domino from falling.  I got her some puppy food, figuring it would be both nutritious and easy to digest and for a little while it looked like it worked.  She perked back up a little and kept it in.  But only for a day.  By Wednesday she started throwing up again regardless of what I fed her and by Thursday night she showed no interest in food at all.  Not even her favourite treats, not biltong, not cheese not peanut butter could get any reaction at all from her.

Friday morning I left her some milk before going to work, hoping that she would at least get some sustenance that way but I could read the writing on the wall.  I knew that my choices came down to either taking her to the vet and risk having her put down or keep trying to fix her on my own and watch her slowly starve to death and as much as I hated the first option I couldn't bear the second option at all.

When I came home, she looked terrible.  She had lost so much weight so fast, she was just skin and bone and a potbelly.  There was some kind of green puss coming out of her eyes and she hadn't even touched the milk but she had somehow managed to throw up even more even though she clearly had nothing left inside.

That's how I ended up on the exact spot I saw myself a standing at the beginning of the week.  With Jackie on a cold table while a sympathetic vet is explaining how dire her condition is.  Apparently she had developed pretty severe diabetes, her blood sugar was off the scale - the scale only went to 34 where healthy is under 6.  The diabetes had led to some infections and complications.  To save her would take a week of hospitalization while they tried to save her liver and kidneys followed by 2 shots daily for the rest of her life.

That is how it all came down to me.  See, Oom Eddie may be her technical owner and he is from the generation where euthanasia is the default treatment for all canine maladies but he's not a forceful or a decisive person so he asked me what I wanted to do.  I have owned 4 dogs in my lifetime, 3 of which had to be put down for various reasons, but I never had to make the call.  My parents took them to the vet and just informed me afterward.  Back then it seemed harsh but now I wished I could make this someone elses problem.  I couldn't though, I was the one who was there, I had to make the call.

So I had to be honest with myself, that the light in her eyes was not what it was a year ago.  The happy little dachshund who would jump out of bed at 5 am on the coldest morning even when she had been sleeping very snuggly had started to not wake up anymore, even if I turned the lights on.  The Jackie who would shamelessly and insistently beg for a piece of whatever I was eating, whether it was a sandwich or an apple had become less and less interested in food.  The spark of life in her that I cherished so much had started to dim, leaving her slow, confused and lethargic.  So should I save her?  I wanted to. So much.  But I knew no amount of treatments would give her more than just a few months more.  I didn't want to save her for her sake, I wanted to save because I didn't want to say goodbye.  I tried.  I saw the future, I saw how increasingly inevitable it became, I tried to tell her goodbye but the words would never come out.  So I made the call and told the doctor to put her to sleep.

It was one of the worst days of my life, hugging my dog for the last time and trying not to openly weep in front of a vet I just met.  She was nice though, she gave me some tissues.  The procedure took so long at first.  She was so old that it took the vet 5 tries to find a vein.  Jackie, tough girl that she was, didn't cry out once.  Then, right before she got the shot, she looked right at me for the very last time.  How I wish I could say that it was something cliche like that she gave me a knowing look or a comforting look or a look of understanding but it was none of that.  She looked at me with her eyes full of green puss and the best I could say was that she didn't look scared.  Maybe just a little confused.  Less than a minute later she had fallen asleep for the last time and the doctor confirmed that her heart had stopped.

I don't know if I made the right call.  Losing Jackie has left me with a big open wound inside and when I think about her the sadness and loss suffocates me.  As I have descended into an increasingly hermit like existence lately (I have a beard now!) she was the once small piece of warmth in my life.  Even when she snored loudly when I tried to sleep, or farted noxiously when I was trying to work on the computer, I loved her.  Loved her when she pestered me for the corner of my toast and I loved her despite all the stains and puddles I had to clean up and the fact that she was constantly licking everything.

She would have been 15 this coming Saturday.  Still feels like it all went by way too fast.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The dreaded Friend Zone

I usually really enjoy the videos by Cult of Dusty on youtube but recently he posted this video which really annoyed me for several reasons:

Now one of the big reasons this video upsets me is that if I saw this 10 years ago, I would be cheering and endorsing it for finally telling the TRUTH and I'm ashamed of that.  Honestly I'm not sure which stole more quality from my youth, being stuck in a crazy charismatic cult or being stuck in the "friend zone".

The other big reason this upsets me is because I like Dusty, I like his style and most of all, I like his insistence on using logic.  This video, while featuring a lot of memes about "evil women" exploiting "nice guys" didn't actually feature much logic.

So here is what I wish I could tell my 20 year old self about the dreaded friend zone.

Firstly I'll grant Dusty this, he did give one piece of solid advice: Stop being a coward!  If you are romantically interested in someone, tell them.  If they're not interested and you are not interested in them in any way other than sexually/romantically then be brave enough to walk away.  Being rejected hurts but not nearly as much as pining for someone for years while they are completely oblivious to your feelings.  You're just making yourself miserable and you'll probably end up making them miserable by being all passive-aggressive about it.  Be brave enough to be honest with them and if you can't then at least be brave enough to be honest with yourself about the fact that you don't actually want to just be their friend.  Which brings me to my next point...

Stop whining about how "nice guys" are always stuck in the friend zone by those evil bitches.  Just stop.  If you're in this position then you're not a nice guy.  There is nothing "nice" about pretending to be someone's friend while in actual fact you're trying to gain enough emotional leverage to become something else.  You're being disingenuous and there is nothing nice about that.  This is not a video game.  You don't get to level up to sexytimes by investing a certain amount of friendship points.  That's not how real life works.  And you already know that because...

You don't apply this kind of reasoning to your life, so why do you expect that from others?  If someone you are not attracted to at all tells you they are interested, would you say "Well I don't like you that way but you seem like a nice person who will treat me well so sure, lets date!"?  You wouldn't.  That's not how attraction works.  So why expect it to work that way for others?  Here is some hard truth: you are not entitled to love or sex or relationship or intimacy.  Just because you like someone romantically that doesn't obligate them to like you back the same way.  And again, you already know that because you don't feel obligated to be attracted to people you find unattractive.  So stop with this idiotic double standard.

So if you're stuck in the friend zone here are 3 easy steps you need to take to get out:

Step 1: Stop feeling sorry for yourself.  If you keep seeing yourself as a victim that's all you'll be.

Step 2: Start being honest with yourself.  Chances are you already know if this person is clearly not attracted to you so stop trying to change that by wishing really hard. The Secret is bullshit.  Attraction doesn't work that way and you know it.

Step 3:  Be honest, if there was absolutely no chance of a romantic relationship of any kind (ever), would you still be hanging around this person and acting like a friend?
Step 3a:  If NO then either tell this person how you feel and bear the consequences or end this "friendship" because you're not doing anyone a favour by hanging around.
Step 3b:  If YES then maybe stop trying to make this something it can't be and just be a friend for real without expecting anything more.

But for fuck's sake, stop acting like being nice to someone entitles you to getting in their pants.  That's just fucking childish!  If that's your game plan then you're not a nice person, you're a fraud.  LOGIC!