Archive for category culture
I can’t tell you how depressed I was after the last US mid-term elections. I likened it at the time to watching a good friend go back to her alcoholic, abusive ex-boyfriend because the new guy wasn’t enough of a “bad boy”. The Republican party in the United States has completely shed any air of credibility as a party interested in the long-term good of the United States. They’ve completely devolved into politicking, abrogating any responsibility they have to act as leaders, grabbing after power instead by ramping up the fear and hatred of an uneducated populace.
Rome is falling, my friends, and it is doing so to the clamoring approval of the mindless horde.
Luckily (or perhaps tragically, since it prolongs the fall) there is a system of checks and balances present in the United States that places limits on the ability of the people to be the authors of their own destruction:
A US federal judge has stopped Oklahoma putting into effect a constitutional amendment to bar courts from considering Islamic law in judgements. Judge Vicky Miles-Lagrange granted an injunction against the certification of the results of State Question 755.
To provide a bit of background, there was a ballot amendment during the midterm election that was passed, banning the recognition of Sharia law or any international law in Oklahoma courts. Of course there was nobody actually proposing that Sharia law be recognized, and the courts already ignore international law (on jurisdictional grounds), but if you whip people into a xenophobic frenzy, they’ll pass whatever law they want as long as it makes them feel safer.
But then… then the stupid sets in:
“Plaintiff has sufficiently set forth a personal stake in this action by alleging that he lives in Oklahoma, is a Muslim, that the amendment conveys an official government message of disapproval and hostility toward his religious beliefs, that sends a clear message he is an outsider, not a full member of the political community, thereby chilling his access to the government and forcing him to curtail his political and religious activities,” she explained.
That’s the shakiest possible grounds for a legal decision I’ve ever heard. Basically because the law would hurt people’s feelings, it’s therefore invalid? I’m not a soothsayer, but I can certainly see this ruling (if it isn’t kicked on appeal) being used as precedent to protect some crybaby Christian group saying that failing to teach Creationism in schools “conveys an official government message of disapproval and hostility” towards their belief in a 10,000 year-old planet.
The real reason this law should be off the books? Because it’s stupid. It’s an entirely redundant law that solves exactly zero problems. The inclusion of any religious law would violate the US Constitution (and likely the Oklahoma state constitution), and would not survive a court challenge. There is absolutely no need to pass a law specifically against Sharia law.
Seriously, America… dump the Republicans. They only end up hurting you in the end.
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In my mind, Oregon is known for two things: hipster Mecca (formerly known as Portland), and being the place you get to only after your entire family dies of dysentery. Well, I guess now it’s known for three things:
A fire at an Islamic centre in the western US state of Oregon was started intentionally, US police say. They say the blaze gutted one room of the Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center in Corvallis. No-one was injured. The centre had been attended by Somali-born teenager Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 19, who was held on Friday for plotting to detonate a bomb at a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in nearby Portland.
I’d like to be able to pretend that I can understand the desire for retribution after someone tries to kill you, but I don’t. Partially because nobody has ever tried to kill me, but also partially because I’m not a fucking lunatic. If the KKK had a chapter headquarters in my neighbourhood, or the Hell’s Angels had a club down the street, while I might feel threatened, there’s no circumstance under which I would burn the place to the ground.
Ah, but of course this is a religious thing, so all bets are off. The perverse reality of such an attack is that it will further disenfranchise and polarize the Muslim community in Oregon (all 9 members) and make them even less likely to see themselves as part of the community.
I’m not saying that people should just roll over and give up when they’ve been attacked, but unless your plan is to kill everyone who disagrees with you, your options for reducing the risk of being attacked are somewhat limited. Burning down a community access point may not be the best choice.
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You’ll undoubtedly have noticed by this time that the majority of these posts are taken from the news. I assume that you can read the newspaper yourself, I just try to pick out the juiciest nuggets and comment on them. Most of the pieces I write revolve around a single news item, which I use to demonstrate some underlying point. However, I am aware that presenting a single story might give you a mistaken impression, particularly when I comment of goings-on in other countries.
So I thought today I’d contrast two stories coming out of India. First, the bad:
Hindu hardline opposition parties have often raised questions about Italian-born Sonia Gandhi’s faith. They have questioned Mrs Gandhi’s right to rule a country where a vast majority of the population is Hindu.
We are somewhat spoiled here in Canada, living in a country where public discussion of religion is considered rude. Our politicians don’t (by and large) trumpet their religion, and while the word “God” is in our national anthem, we don’t really spend much time or energy on trying to keep religion out of the public square.
India is quite another story, where tribalism and religious differences are intractably linked, and deep suspicions and hatred between groups go back generations. Religion is, to the person on the street, very important. Regular readers may remember the story of the Indian and Pakistani tennis players whose partnership flies in the face of religious schism. It is the same within India.
Luckily, the court has struck down this request for religious identification, so this story isn’t all bad. The fact that it made it that far gives cause for pause, because the only reason it isn’t happening here is because nobody cares… yet.
The next story, though, is all good:
About 2,000 people have joined a gay pride parade in the Indian capital, Delhi, the first such event since homosexuality was legalised last year. Organisers said gay people were demonstrating that they have a place in society, and that the parade was a celebration of being different.
I am so weary of hearing straight people get all hot and bothered over Pride events. “Why do you need to go out and flaunt it? We don’t have straight pride parades!” Mmm, just bask in the privilege denial. The whole point of a Pride parade is to counteract the stigma of shame that has been attached to homosexuality for generations – a stigma that found its way into laws and is still tearing the United States apart.
Here in Canada where gay people have (nearly) equal rights (anyone who feels the need to make the tired and brainless assertion that they have more rights because you’re not allowed to discriminate against them, you’re really overestimating my willingness to listen to stupid arguments), Pride parades might seem redundant. However, we don’t live in a bubble, and our society’s public willingness to allow gay people the freedom to celebrate their identity sends a message to the rest of the world, including India.
The message that is sent by India to the rest of the world is that maybe, just maybe, they’re starting to shake off the crushing yoke of religion and becoming a modern, secular democracy.
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Satire has never looked so good:
The fundamental difficulty I have with the niqab is that it’s impossible to completely tease out the coercion and brainwashing that goes into religious and cultural education. I can’t understand why anyone would want to cover themselves with a thick cloth, but does that give me the right to pronounce it ethically wrong?
At least these women are showing that the debate shouldn’t be taken too seriously. There’s a bit more background to be found in The Guardian, but there’s not much more to be said about it.
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Oftentimes people (and this tends to happen more often on the liberal side) will simply wave race away as a phenomenon, saying that it is merely a proxy for wealth. I was of this mindset until not too long ago, when I really started digging deep into the issue. While there is no doubt that race and wealth are strongly linked, money is only one tile in the mosaic of effect that fall under the banner of race. Another friend of mine sent me an article that illustrates this phenomenon fairly well:
The professor [UC Berkeley Anthropology Professor John Ogbu] and his research assistant moved to Shaker Heights [an affluent community in Cleveland] for nine months in mid-1997. They reviewed data and test scores. The team observed 110 different classes, from kindergarten all the way through high school. They conducted exhaustive interviews with school personnel, black parents, and students. Their project yielded an unexpected conclusion: It wasn’t socioeconomics, school funding, or racism, that accounted for the students’ poor academic performance; it was their own attitudes, and those of their parents.
The parents of the children in the study are all upper middle-class; doctors, lawyers, well-to-do people. These aren’t kids whose parents are struggling to make ends meet, and whose educated suffers as a result; from an economic standpoint these kids shouldn’t have any barriers to access that would explain the dramatic differences in achievement between white and black students. So, like any scientist would, Dr. Ogbu went looking for other explanations.
I don’t know much about sociology methods, so I’m not going to comment on the way in which these findings were derived. I’d imagine, as a researcher in another field, that the lack of rigorous observation of a control group (white Shaker Heights students) is a major limitation. The conclusions will be fraught with personal biases, and will lack objectivity for that reason. However, nobody else has approached this community to ask these questions, and the vociferous denial of Dr. Ogbu’s conclusions seems a bit hollow:
The National Urban League condemned him and his work in a press release that scoffed, “The League holds that it is useless to waste time and energy with those who blame the victims of racism.”
“Education is a very high value in the African-American community and in the African community. The fundamental problem is Dr. Ogbu is unfamiliar with the fact that there are thousands of African-American students who succeed. It doesn’t matter whether the students are in Shaker Heights or an inner city. The achievement depends on what expectations the teacher has of the students.” Hilliard, who is black, believes Shaker Heights teachers must not expect enough from their black students.
“We know what the major problems in this school system are: racism, lack of funding, and unqualified teachers.” Although Shaker Heights is in fact an integrated, well-funded, and well-staffed school district, Ross is nonetheless convinced that it suffers from other problems that contribute to the achievement disparities between the races.
Far be it from me to suggest that the identified problems of teacher expectations, differential funding, and systemic racism don’t play a role. Indeed, I personally believe that they represent the majority of the problem; however, when those things were controlled for in a natural experiment, they did not explain the differential outcome. As a scientist, I have to go where the evidence points. In Shaker Heights, at least, there is little evidence to support the conclusion that funding, teacher qualifications, or parental income level explains the difference.
The danger in stories like this, however, is when the conclusions are extrapolated beyond the strength of the evidence. As I noted above, without a control group and with only one person interpreting the findings, the evidence found here is not very strong. It would be a mistake, for example, to suggest that it is the attitude of the students and parents that explains the differences we see at a national level. There’s nothing in these findings to suggest that attitude is a bigger predictor of success than the other factors that multiple other studies have found. However, the responses from those on the right tend to be “see? Even the eggheads say that black people are the authors of their own destruction!” Which is not at all what the paper says – it says that there may be some other forces at play that are larger than simple economics can address:
People who voluntarily immigrate to the United States always do better than the involuntary immigrants, he believes. “I call Chicanos and Native Americans and blacks ‘involuntary minorities,’” he says. “They joined American society against their will. They were enslaved or conquered.” Ogbu sees this distinction as critical for long-term success in and out of school.
“Blacks say Standard English is being imposed on them,” he says. “That’s not what the Chinese say, or the Ibo from Nigeria. You come from the outside and you know you have to learn Standard English, or you won’t do well in school. And you don’t say whites are imposing on you. The Indians and blacks say, ‘Whites took away our language and forced us to learn their language. They caused the problem.’”
This seems to me to be an entirely reasonable conclusion, and a worthwhile avenue of study.
He concluded that there was a culture among black students to reject behaviors perceived to be “white,” which included making good grades, speaking Standard English, being overly involved in class, and enrolling in honors or advanced-placement courses. The students told Ogbu that engaging in these behaviors suggested one was renouncing his or her black identity. Ogbu concluded that the African-American peer culture, by and large, put pressure on students not to do well in school, as if it were an affront to blackness.
As someone who’s experienced this first-hand, I have no problem understanding how this might play a role.
Ogbu did, in fact, note that teachers treated black and white students differently in the 110 classes he observed. However, he doesn’t believe it was racism that accounted for the differences. “Yes, there was a problem of low teacher expectations of black students,” he explains. “But you have to ask why. Week after week the kids don’t turn in their homework. What do you expect teachers to do?”
And again, a reasonable finding and potential avenue for investigation.
There is a scintilla of truth to the accusation that liberals will refuse to accept any data that conflicts with their (our) narrative of victimhood when it comes to race. I say scintilla, because it (in true conservative fashion) rewrites the past and can’t see past its own nose. The reason why there is that narrative is because it has replaced the flawed doctrine of “personal responsibility” which is simply code for victim blaming. However, reality is absolutely more complicated than entirely victimhood or personal choice; nobody disputes that. Those of us on the left merely point out that one contributes more than the other.
At any rate, as I have been saying all along, race is a complicated machine with a lot of moving pieces. Race is not entirely economic, nor is it entirely personal. It is the intersection of history, psychology, sociology, economics, neurology, education, social policy, and any number of other factors. The more we can discuss it openly, the more we can observe it rigorously, and the less ready we are to shut down arguments we don’t like (or take mindless credit for things that we think support our narrative but don’t), the faster we can make progress.
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Many of you know that I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Waterloo. A good friend who I met in my program there sent me this article from Macleans magazine:
To quell the influx of Jewish students, Ivy League schools abandoned their meritocratic admissions processes in favour of one that focused on the details of an applicant’s private life—questions about race, religion, even about the maiden name of an applicant’s mother. Schools also began looking at such intangibles as character, personality and leadership potential. Canadian universities, apart from highly competitive professional programs and faculties, don’t quiz applicants the same way, and rely entirely on transcripts. Likely that is a good thing. And yet, that meritocratic process results, especially in Canada’s elite university programs, in a concentration of Asian students.
Waterloo, for those of you who don’t know, is a school with large engineering and mathematics faculties. It is, non-coincidentally, a school with a very large east-Asian and south-Asian students, many of whom are born in China, India or Pakistan. The culture in which these students were raised puts education at a premium, particularly in fields like engineering. Waterloo was sometimes referred to, by white and Asian students alike, as “Water-Woo”, referring to the Chinese population (as opposed to a particular propensity for homeopathy). My high school in Brampton had a large population of Indian and Pakistani students who were expected to study business or accounting or a related field in university. It really didn’t matter what the kids wanted – the parents called the shots.
Once at Waterloo, it was common (though not exclusively true by any stretch) to see Chinese students associating in groups, rather than as part of multicultural groups. Part of that, I’m sure, has to do with familiarity, particularly of language. Whenever someone complained, I pointed out that nobody thought it was odd to see a group of all-white students congregating together. However, the Macleans article suggests another, perhaps more familiar to readers here, reason why this is happening:
“I do have traditional Asian parents. I feel the pressure of finding a good job and raising a good family.” That pressure helps shape more than just the way [UBC student Susie] Su handles study and school assignments; it shapes the way she interacts with her colleagues. “If I feel like it’s going to be an event where it’s all white people, I probably wouldn’t want to go,” she says. “There’s a lot of just drinking. It’s not that I don’t like white people. But you tend to hang out with people of the same race.”
Catherine Costigan, a psychology assistant prof at the University of Victoria, says it’s unsurprising that Asian students are segregated from “mainstream” campus life. She cites studies that show Chinese youth are bullied more than their non-Asian peers. As a so-called “model minority,” they are more frequently targeted because of being “too smart” and “teachers’ pets.” To counter peer ostracism and resentment, Costigan says Chinese students reaffirm their ethnicity.
Imagine you went to a school where your peers were predominantly conservative Muslims – no pub nights, regular interruptions for prayer, constant discussion of religion, and a feeling of disquiet every time you wear shorts or leave your head uncovered. Of course you’d cling to a group of people who share your more liberal, non-religious values. You’d be less likely to get involved in the community at large, and your friends would tend to come from the group that is most like you – not out of any particular aversion to Muslim students, but because you don’t feel comfortable surrounded by a culture that you don’t share.
Such is the case for the population of Chinese students who come to universities in Canada. To be sure, there are many who eschew the traditional background – or whose parents aren’t particularly traditional – and feel comfortable in mixed-race groups. This is particularly true of Canadian-born people of Chinese descent who feel a greater allegiance to other Canadian-born students than they do to the country of their parents’ birth. But because of the difference in attitudes towards school, white students are starting to feel the effects of this voluntary segregation as well:
“Too Asian” is not about racism, say students like Alexandra: many white students simply believe that competing with Asians—both Asian Canadians and international students—requires a sacrifice of time and freedom they’re not willing to make. They complain that they can’t compete for spots in the best schools and can’t party as much as they’d like (too bad for them, most will say).
I am not so quick to dismiss the disincentivization of social interaction as Macleans is though. Many of the social skills I picked up while “partying” during undergrad have been instrumental in getting me where I am today, far more than my marks have. When the degree is the only goal, we risk losing many of the other experiences that make the undergraduate degree useful, including network development and teamwork skills. Funneling students into disciplines like engineering and math (or pre-med and business) means that Asian students are less likely to study language, history, philosophy, psychology, any of the fields that are helpful in developing into a well-rounded human being. It also disincentivizes critical thinking, which will ultimately come back to bite us in the ass as a society. This has nothing, however, to do with being “too Asian” or any such nonsense – it has more to do with what we consider an ‘education’, and how we measure merit.
The sad thing is that white students are choosing to migrate further afield to schools that are more monochromatic, like Queen’s and Western. This segregation will, over time, become more deeply entrenched as people’s networks become more insular and less multicultural. This represents a challenge for Canada – do we abandon merit-based education based on marks, or do we only admit students who adhere to our nebulous definition of “Canadian culture”? Is this perhaps just a facet of privilege, as we move away from a “traditional” view of what a student is, or does this represent the actual loss of something valuable? For once, I can’t even offer an idea of an answer. Maybe one of you can.
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A friend of mine came to town a few months ago, and we decided to visit the Vancouver Art Gallery. The featured exhibit was comprised of drawings by Renoir, Tolouse-Lautrec and Dégas, regarding the changing view of the modern woman through artistic expression in the early 20th century. I was delighted to see the drawings, because I love seeing how art intersects and fuels changes in the overall cultural understanding (there’s that zeitgeist word again). However, the thing that captivated my attention most was up on the third floor – a collection of works by American painter Kerry James Marshall:
Marshall’s paintings depict primarily African-American figures, using formally diverse art historical methods that speak to the visibility and invisibility of “blackness” in the history of western art.
My favourite painting in the collection was this one:
From far away, it looks like an all-black canvas, perhaps an abstract expressionist piece. However, closer inspection reveals this (click to enlarge):
It depicts a bedroom scene in which a couple lies together in bed. The walls and rest of the apartment are decorated with black nationalist trappings – there is a flag of the Black Panther Party on the wall, books by Angela Davis, a great number of other things that are completely invisible from the first cursory glance. The fascinating thing about this painting (the reason why it’s my favourite) is that it’s all done in shades of black. The people and the details of their lives are completely invisible unless you take care to look closely.
Such is the reality of race in North America – a casual glance completely neglects the richness and diversity of the populace and our history. We lose many things by failing to look closely, and in some cases it’s a bit more dire than a simple lack of understanding:
Exit 67, director Jepthé Bastien’s compassionate story of a young Haitian gangster, is a first for Quebec cinema: it features a predominantly black cast and is set in St. Michel, a poor, multi-ethnic neighbourhood in northeastern Montreal that is largely ignored by the mainstream media… “These kids are a product of their environment. Many are poor. They have been failed by family and the system,” says the director. “In Quebec, we don’t really like to acknowledge that [the Haitian offspring] were born here. They are the ‘other.’ But they are our children. We need to take care of them and we don’t. They are simply clientele for the penal system.”
I’m sorry that this movie is only screening in Quebec, since it does have application to many other communities we tend to overlook. The consequence of ignorance about something like race is that we fail to address it until it’s too obvious to ignore, at which point we treat it as a crime problem or a poverty problem or any number of other things that neglect the underlying issues. Once again, education can be used to raise our consciousness about a number of issues that we have no idea even exist. This time art is being used for its intended purpose – to hold a mirror up to society.
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Last week I talked about the dangers of believing superstitions, and confusing superstition with culture. I also illustrated the specific plight of albino people, who are particularly targeted with violence for the supposed magical properties of their limbs. Of course, albinos have no magical properties – albinism is a single-gene mutation affecting pigmentation. But that doesn’t stop people from kidnapping and maiming albinos.
Tanzania has taken one small step toward correcting this practice:
An albino has been elected as an MP in Tanzania for the first time. “This win is a victory not only for me but also for all the albinos in this country,” Salum Khalfani Bar’wani, from the opposition Cuf party, told the BBC. “My joy has no end,” he told the BBC Swahili Service. “The people of Lindi have used their wisdom and have appreciated clearly that albinos are capable. I am so touched that this is the first time in the electoral history of this country for an albino to be elected by the people in a popular contest to be their representative in parliament – and not through sympathy votes or decisions.”
This is a great feed-forward mechanism that could have real positive effects. An albino MP is a recognizable, prominent public figure that challenges the commonly-held narrative around albinos. A greater level of awareness about albinism can start to take hold in the public consciousness. Of course such a shift will take a long time, so strong is the staying power of superstitious beliefs. However, the fact that Mr. Bar’wani was popularly elected suggests to me that such a shift has already began.
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The cliché goes “what you don’t know can’t hurt you.”
I went on at great length this morning about why we must intervene when we see superstition hurting people – that our fear of appearing paternalistic has overpowered our reason and paralyzed us into inactivity. Maybe this will illustrate what I mean:
The dismembered body of a young albino boy has been found in a river on the Burundi-Tanzania border, reports say. The boy, aged nine, was taken from Makamba province in Burundi by a gang that crossed the border, the head of Burundi’s albino association said. Albino body parts are prized in parts of Africa, with witch-doctors claiming they have special powers. In Tanzania, the body parts of people living with albinism are used by witch-doctors for potions which they tell clients will help make them rich or healthy. Dozens of albinos have been killed, and the killings have spread to neighbouring Burundi.
Albinism, as anyone who has taken a high school science course knows, is the result of a single-gene mutation. When two recessive alleles are expressed in one individual, the skin does not produce melanin – the substance that gives skin its colour. Albinism among Europeans is rare enough, but not so dramatic when it happens. Among the dark-skinned population of southern Africa, an albino person is a stark contrast.
There is nothing at all in the recessive allele that grants any particular properties to the body parts of albino people. It regulates the expression of a particular protein sequence, that’s it. The same kind of properties that make my hair curly and black, whereas my neighbour’s is wavy and blonde, are the kinds of differences we are talking about. There’s no magic in it at all – certainly not anything that will affect your wealth or physical function.
The only real tangible side-effect of albinism that goes beyond simple difference in colour is that albinos are a target for kidnappers and murderers. This isn’t as a product of their skin, but as a product of a specific set of beliefs about their skin. Here’s a challenge for you readers: read a simple article on Mendelian genetic theory (like this one from the University of Arizona) until you feel like you have a general grasp of the idea. Now talk to a friend or family member who is not particularly “sciency”, and teach them the theory. I’d be surprised if it takes longer than 15 minutes for them to grasp the basics. Then, ask them if albinos are magic.
My point is that it is superficially easy to arm someone with enough basic scientific knowledge to know about single-gene mutations, and that they don’t grant magic powers. Trivially easy. Why are we not doing this in Africa, where what they don’t know is literally killing people?
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I’m not sure where this blog is going. To be honest this started as a way to organize some of my thoughts on some issues that I think are important, and a way to comment on some of the stuff I saw going on around me. It always blows me away whenever a friend or acquaintance says to me “I read your blog” – I never really imagined that anyone would bother to read the random cognitive ejaculations that I put up on the internet on a regular basis, at least not beyond my Facebook friends who creep my profile in the morning. However, a handful of people who are complete strangers to me read this stuff, which is a head trip for me.
Another way you know that you’re making it as a blogger is when people start sending you links to blog about. So I must give a hat tip to Fred Bremmer (who is certainly not a stranger to me) for bringing this article to my attention:
There is a great thudding taboo in any discussion of Africa. Western journalists and aid workers see it everywhere, yet it is nowhere in our coverage back home. We don’t want to talk about it. We don’t know how to. We smother it in silence, even though it is one of the most vivid and vibrant and violent parts of African life. We are afraid—of being misunderstood, or of sounding like our own ugliest ancestors. The suppressed topic? The African belief in spirits and spells and ancestors and black magic.
What follows is a dissection and examination of a serious problem in any culture, but one that is particularly pronounced in the continent of Africa – the role that belief in spirits plays in the quality of life of the people there. Those of us who are aware of European and Western bias and colonial arrogance are often loath to criticize the practices in other countries. After all, who is to say our ways are better than theirs? Isn’t it sheer paternalism on our part to presume to criticize another culture’s practices? Maybe we have something to learn from other ways of doing things!
Unfortunately, this line of thinking has paralyzed into a kind of arch-liberal refusal to even appear to criticize dangerous practices:
Soothsayers demand money for their “powers,” like the one who tells Naipaul that there are curses preventing his daughter from getting married and if he wants them lifted he’ll have to pay. It licenses bigotry. A community can announce that a malaria outbreak is due to the old women of the village waging witchcraft, and slaughter them. It licenses some deranged delusions. During the war in Congo, a soothsayer announced that you could be cured of HIV if you ate a pygmy. I visited a pygmy village where several men had “disappeared” as a result.
If your neighbour is about to feed his kids cyanide to “cleanse” them of “toxins”, is there really a virtue in standing aside and allowing him to do so out of some kind of misguided respect for his beliefs and his right to decide what is best for his kids? Should our oh-so-tolerant sensibilities extend to idly abetting murder? Of course not, and I can’t imagine any rational person suggesting otherwise. The debate is not, or at least should not be, about whether to intervene; it should be about how to intervene. Again from the article, contrast this approach:
Juliana Bernard is an ordinary young African woman who knew, from childhood, that claims of black magic and witchcraft were false and could be debunked. She told me: “If I can understand [germ theory], so can everybody else in this country. They are no different to me.” So she set up a group who traveled from village to village, offering the people a deal: For just one month, take these medicines and these vaccinations, and leave the “witches” alone to do whatever they want without persecution. See what happens. If people stop getting sick, you’ll know my theories about germs are right, and you can forget about the evil spirits.
Just this small dose of rationality—offered by one African to another—had revolutionary effects. Of course the superstitions didn’t vanish, but now they were contested, and the rationalist alternative had acquired passionate defenders in every community. I watched as village after village had vigorous debates, with the soothsayers suddenly having to justify themselves for the first time and facing accusations of being frauds and liars.
And this one:
On a trip to Tanzania, I saw one governmental campaign to stamp out the old beliefs in action when I went to visit a soothsayer deep in the forest. Eager to steer people toward real doctors for proper treatment—a good idea, but there are almost none in the area—the army had turned up that morning and smashed up her temple until it was rubble. She was sobbing and wailing in the wreckage. “My ancestors lived here, but now their spirits have been released into the air! They are homeless! They are lost!” she cried.
Once again, there is a clear right and wrong here – one of these approaches works and the other does not. If we, with the best of intentions, rush in to places and smash superstition to bits, we remove the symptom without addressing the cause. However, when rational discussion is allowed to take place, the dialogue and cultural understanding of these superstitions can change. This is not to say that we shouldn’t vigorously oppose superstition in its various guises or speak out against it whenever possible, but that mandating disbelief is just as dangerous as mandating belief.
This article is about Africa, but of course my response to it is not really. While I am concerned for my African brothers and sisters, I am not from Africa. I am from Canada, where our own particular brand of superstition rages apace. We can look to the African struggle against superstition as a model for our own (albeit down-scaled) problems here. Destroying the religious infrastructure is not only unethical, it is unproductive. What has to happen is that people are encouraged to think critically about all topics, and that the privilege that religion currently enjoys be removed.
Returning to Africa for a moment, I’m sure there are some bleeding hearts among my readers who are happy to decry my paternalism – who am I to pass judgment on another culture? I encourage you to read the following:
The final time I saw Juliana, she told me, “When I go to a village where an old woman has been hacked to pieces, should I say, ‘This is the African way, forget about it?’ I am an African. The murdered woman was an African. It is not our way. If you ignore this fact, you ignore us, and you ignore our struggle.”
It is equally paternalistic to say “well rationality and science are all well and good for us, but Africans should have to deal with superstition.” We have a moral duty to promote the truth as best we know it, and to instruct others in the use of tools that have been observed to work.
TL/DR: Those who fear being overly paternalistic when it comes to the superstitions present in other individuals and cultures risk being equally paternalistic on the other side when they ignore the consequences of doing nothing.
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