Neither here nor there

I don’t think I’m very good at handling conflicts -I hate confrontation; I prefer the view from the top of the Bell Curve where I can safely watch the goings-on of the extremophiles in their respective antipodes. I suppose that’s why I gravitate to boundaries where, if I’m careful, I’m neither here nor there.

This is probably not a recipe for success, let alone conquest, but nevertheless it is a position well suited to observe the vagaries of both sides. After all, the victors should not always be the arbiters of history -not even history lasts forever…

But what, exactly, constitutes an ‘us’ and ‘them’? I realize we all seem to fit into categories -much like we all belong to families- and yet, exclusion from one list doesn’t necessitate exclusion from another. The allotment often seems quite arbitrary in fact. Random. If a member of another sports team is injured, say, should I rejoice? Their loss might confer an undeserved advantage to our ‘side’, but surely it means less than if we’d won with both sides playing their best.

I know this sounds naïve, especially when applied to teams and competitions -it’s what games are all about isn’t it? You’re supposed to pick a side… But does the choice imply that you are therefore expected to dislike the other team? Hate them, even? I think not. And what about victory? Is it for all times, or given that it is a competition, does the other side have a chance at the next encounter? After all, if the results were always a foregone conclusion, it wouldn’t be much of a contest, would it?

With this consideration in mind, I thought it might be valuable to canvass various opinions as to the origin and value of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ thing. It turns out that there seem to be as many opinions as there are conflicting groups, so in a bid for compromise, I settled on a rather lengthy essay by the journalist Marek Kohn entitled, appropriately enough, Us and Them: https://aeon.co/essays/if-we-love-our-friends-does-that-make-us-hate-our-enemies

‘We come into the world with open minds, ready to tune in to whatever language or culture surrounds us. But as we lock on to the strongest signals, the others become less distinct. As our sense of ‘us’ develops, our sense of ‘them’ degrades… New-born babies gaze with equal attention at faces regardless of ethnic appearance, but by three months they prefer looking at faces from their own ethnic group… These findings are unsettling. They suggest that a sense of ‘us and them’, with its accompanying biases, can emerge from vital processes that are not directly concerned with sorting people into in-groups and out-groups… During its first nine months, an infant seems to refine its models by narrowing its focus. In the process, it loses its ability to recognise less familiar-looking people as individuals.’ Unless, that is, they possess some feature that appeals to it.

Kohn sites innumerable examples of studies that suggest, much like William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, that we search for features with which we can identify -shirt colours, fashions, opinions, talents, and so on- and join the groups that serve our purposes. ‘Humans are not simply social beings but political ones. From playgrounds to corridors of power, they are constantly forming, modifying, ending and generally complicating alliances. Stable cues that signal alliance, such as speech traits or styles of dress, offer regularities that help people orient themselves.’

But, what should we do with them? Is it ever a justification for discrimination? Mistreatment? Kohn is disappointingly coy in his ultimate conclusions: ‘Perhaps we simply have to accept that the relationship between us and them is always a work in progress.’

I was thinking about this when I met some friends for our still physically-distanced meetings outside the local coffee shop. The four of us were an elderly eclectic bunch: Harjit with his turban, Arthur with his accustomed woolen sports jacket and tie, and Jeremy with his long, snow-white Santa Claus beard. I, alone amongst them, was appropriately attired in my grey long-sleeved sweat shirt and contrasting black sweat pants -you don’t overdress for coffee. All of us, according to the custom of the day, had our face masks hanging from an ear, or tucked into a handy pocket however -each of us was ready for a nearby sneeze or cough.

But Arthur was already complaining by the time we’d found a sufficiently large patio table that overlooked the grassy meadow of the adjacent park. “Look at them,” he hissed, pointing at a group of twenty-somethings walking through the grass towards some trees close to us. We all turned our heads to see who he was pointing at. “No masks,” he continued when he was sure he had our attention. “Not one of them…” he added with disgust evident on his face.

“But they’re outside, Art,” Harjit said. “Not everybody wears a mask outside. And besides, they’ve obviously just come from a baseball game -look at their uniforms. We were like that when we were their age… Immortal,” he added with a wistful smile.

“More like vectors,” Arthur grumbled and had a sip of his coffee.

“Except for age, they’re not so very different from us,” Jeremy said, brushing some doughnut crumbs out of his beard as he spoke.

Arthur rolled his eyes theatrically, and put his coffee down carefully on the rickety table. “Come on, Jer,” he said, shaking his head slowly. “The youth nowadays are all the same. Look at them. They’re crowded together, and patting each other on the back… very irresponsible if you ask me.” Nobody did, however -Arthur was very sure about things. Too sure, sometimes.

The crowd must have won their game, because they seemed in a jovial mood, and gathered at a bench under the trees. Soon, a couple of members of the losing team appeared from trees on the other side of the grassy meadow. In contrast to the winners’ red, both were attired in grey uniforms, but one of them was coughing badly.

“What’s wrong with him?” I could hear one of the reds yelling at the two greys.

“Don’t know,” the healthier grey answered back. “He suddenly got worse after the game. I’m trying to get him home,” he explained.

“Was he okay before…?” the red asked.

The healthy grey that was helping his friend shrugged. “He said he was a bit tired, but he’d been out partying last night, so…”

“I told you,” Arthur said in a low voice to the rest of us. “They don’t think of anybody but themselves -no thought for the rest of us in the community…”

Suddenly the grey collapsed, gasping onto the grass, and everybody on the red team stood around in a wide circle as one red ran to help the coughing man. “We’ve got to get him to the hospital,” he shouted, obviously searching for a phone in his pocket.

Nobody had one, of course, so the red yelled at our table. “Can one of you phone 911 for us?”

“He’s probably got Covid,” Arthur whispered to the rest of us.

But Harjit already had his phone out, and signalled to them he was phoning. “Can we help?” he yelled at the crowd, and started across the field towards them. Two of the players ran to stop him from coming closer.

“He might have the virus,” one of them yelled at him.

“I’m a doctor,” Harjit replied. “Or at least was until I retired…”

But the two reds blocked his way as one of them looked over his shoulder at the young man lying on the grass. “Thanks, but he seems to be settling now,” he added. “We can manage till the paramedics get here.” And he gently took Harjit by his shoulder and guided him back to our table. “Thanks again,” the red said to him again, and turned to leave.

“I think the youth of today are just fine,” Harjit said when he sat down with us again.

Fortunately Arthur decided to sip quietly at his cooling cup of coffee.

“We are all ‘us’ nowadays, I think,” Jeremy said as he added a few more crumbs to his beard.

In praise of an empty brain

How do I love thee, Age? Let me count the ways… Well, actually I’m not actually going to, because of late, I’ve fallen out with it. Perhaps it’s just my memory that’s falling, though: I was about to parody Shakespeare -it’s what I knew I knew, and yet I didn’t (it was Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I checked). A simple mistake, perhaps, and yet, once again, the hubris of my years led me along the wrong neurons. I feel embarrassed about it now, but suppose I had offered it to someone as a valid Shakespearean quotation and, out of respect for my age, I had not been contradicted? For that matter, what if I’d felt there was no need even to look it up?

Although I am now retired after a long career in medicine, people still ask for my opinion. I answer them, of course, but I do wonder if what I say is still up to date and correct. And often as not, I will look up the answer when I get home. Whether it be age or temperament, the assumption of knowledge I do not possess sits poorly with me. Nowadays, I am far more likely to shrug and admit that I do not know the answer to the question asked -or at least admit that I am uncertain.

However for an expert, I suppose it’s a matter of pride to speak with certainty, even if that confidence is apt to block, or even deride other viewpoints. It seems to me that knowledge is never a locked door -we can always learn by opening it from time to time.

Of course I have never been able to keep track of my keys, so I suppose I am particularly vulnerable. The other day while I was meandering through my apps, for example, I stumbled upon an intriguing essay in Psyche: https://psyche.co/guides/how-to-cultivate-shoshin-or-a-beginners-mind

The author, Christian Jarrett, a cognitive neuroscientist, writes that ‘The Japanese Zen term shoshin translates as ‘beginner’s mind’ and refers to a paradox: the more you know about a subject, the more likely you are to close your mind to further learning.’ He cites several historical examples of the inability to accept new findings, including one that promises my increasing years the hope of new clothes: ‘belief in the legendary Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s ‘harsh decree’ that adult humans are unable to grow new neurons persisted for decades in the face of mounting contradictory evidence.’

But, of course this is hardly confined to academia. Expertise in any field breeds hubris. ‘Merely having a university degree in a subject can lead people to grossly overestimate their knowledge… participants frequently overestimated their level of understanding, apparently mistaking the ‘peak knowledge’ they had at the time they studied at university for their considerably more modest current knowledge.’ In fact, ‘there is research evidence that even feeling like an expert also breeds closed-mindedness.’

Jarrett then suggests something obvious: ‘Approaching issues with a beginner’s mind or a healthy dose of intellectual humility can help to counter the disadvantages of intellectual hubris… being intellectually humble is associated with open-mindedness and a greater willingness to be receptive to other people’s perspectives.’

Good idea for sure, but how can a dyed-in-the-wool expert stoop to conquer their own hard-earned arrogance? One way that I thought was clever was ‘to make the effort to explain a relevant issue or topic to yourself or someone else in detail, either out loud or in writing. This exercise makes the gaps in our knowledge more apparent and bursts the illusion of expertise.’ It also makes me think of that famous quote from St. Augustine: What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.

But, I have to say there is another method that Jarrett suggests, almost as an addendum, that has to be my favourite: ‘deliberately invoking in oneself the emotion of awe. Several studies have shown that awe quietens the ego and prompts epistemological openness’. In other words, ‘Gaze at the night sky, take a walk in nature, or listen to a stirring symphony. Any activities that invoke in you the emotion of awe (wonder at the enormity and beauty of the world) will increase your feelings of humility, and inspire a more open-minded perspective.’

The essay reminded me of something that happened to me many years ago while I was in the thrall of my freshly earned medical degree. Nancy, my date and I had been invited to her uncle Arvid’s house for dinner, and I suppose I felt a little intimidated sitting across the table from a recently retired professor of history. I don’t know why I was uncomfortable. He was an absolutely delightful man who was so energetic when he spoke that his arms seemed to explode upward as if they were spring-loaded. He wore his snow-white hair long and each time his hands unfurled to make a point, a curly lock would roll onto his forehead and his eyes would twinkle in response as if he found the whole thing hilarious. Sophie, his wife, was all smiles, as well, although she wore her hair short and could only resort to smoothing it out each time she laughed.

It was clear from the start that they wanted to put me at ease, and Arvid was careful that he didn’t seed his usually witty remarks with historical references; he didn’t even mention the university position he had held. But I wanted to let Arvid know that I, too, was interested in history and knew something about his area of specialization: the French Enlightenment. Well, actually I only started reading about it when Nancy told me about the dinner.

During a lull in the conversation when we were helping ourselves to dessert, I decided to make my move. “Is it true that the Little Ice Age may have played a part in the French Revolution, Arvid?” I asked, as casually as I could manage.

Arvid smiled at me as he scooped some strawberries from a bowl onto his plate. “Climate was probably a factor, G,” he replied pleasantly. “But all of Europe was affected by that as well.”

“I suppose I was drawing a bit of a parallel with current climate change issues -although certainly not an Ice Age…”

“You mean the effects that major climate shifts may have on political stability?” He seemed genuinely interested.

I nodded and took my turn with the strawberries. “I suspect that our crop yields may suffer as they did in France with the climatic upheavals of the time…” I left the sentence open so he would know I was only offering it as a possible result.

Arvid seemed to think about it as he scooped some ice cream on top of his plate of strawberries. “That’s an interesting comparison, G.” He took a tentative sample of the dessert and studied the spoon for a moment. “I must say we historians sometimes content ourselves with the proximate causes of events: endemic corruption, increased taxes, and the unaffordable price of bread in the case of the French Revolution…”. He tasted the heaping spoonful and then attacked the dessert more seriously. “I think you have a point, G. I must look into that a bit more…” he added between bites, then glanced at his wife who had been largely silent so far.

Their eyes touched briefly and she smiled indulgently as she no doubt always did when hosting dinners for his many students over the years.

Historiognosis

When I was in school, history was just a series of strange and unfamiliar stories -some interesting, most forgettable. Of course, I recognize the irony in describing the effects of teaching methods that are now, themselves, historical, but I still wonder how decisions were made about which facts to focus on. The date of a battle, or the names of the generals who were killed are easily agreed upon, and yet what about things like the beginning of the Enlightenment, or when the Little Ice Age began and ended? They are surely more approximations -opinions- than known ‘facts’.

Again, when I was much younger and my leaves were still green and tender, it seemed that most, if not all, of the important historical figures were male, and by and large, European. Females, if they were mentioned at all, were like adjectives that added colour to their male nouns. There were, of course, exceptions -Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th century Abbess, polymath, and musical composer of sacred monophony is my favourite, I think- but only relatively recently have more historically important females been  ‘discovered’. Heaven only knows how many more lie patiently awaiting exhumation.

And, let’s face it, even when I was in high school, Columbus was still felt to have ‘discovered’ America, much to the amused astonishment of the original inhabitants, no doubt. And Africa had never been considered to have hosted any civilizations worthy of the name, let alone exhibited any philosophical thinking, or theological profundities.

I suppose, for an interested but no doubt naïve amateur, it has always been the arbitrariness of the choices about what happened in the past, and often, the seemingly limited perspectives of the almost infinite number of  possibilities available, that trouble me.

And yes, I understand that the sources from which conclusions are drawn may be unreliable, or reflect the biases of their creators (or historians), and I can imagine that even where the written documents may be clearly worded, their meanings are not fixed for all times. Societal norms, and expectations also no doubt influence what was felt to be important to record. So, although I am intrigued by History, I am wary of any lessons it might purport to offer those of us alive today.

Still, I continue to be attracted to new analyses, and I remain curious about novel ways of approaching and evaluating the Past. So, it was with a frisson of excitement that I embarked upon the exploration of a rather complex essay that suggested there may be a more objective way of appraising history -a mathematical approach that is no doubt old-hat to professional historians, but new to uncredentialled and only part-time acolytes like myself. Amanda Rees, a historian of science in the department of sociology at the University of York, surveyed attempts to objectivize History, and bring it more in line with the Natural Sciences with their use of statistical analyses and the like: https://aeon.co/essays/if-history-was-more-like-science-would-it-predict-the-future

Rees, ends her first paragraph with a question: ‘If big data could enable us to turn big history into mathematics rather than narratives, would that make it easier to operationalise our past?’ There have been several unsuccessful attempts to try something like this. For example, ‘In the 19th century, the English historian Henry Thomas Buckle used a broad-brush approach to the past in an effort to identify ‘natural laws’ that governed society… Buckle’s contemporary, the French positivist Auguste Comte, had earlier proposed his ‘law of three stages’ which styled human society as passing through ‘theological’ and ‘metaphysical’ stages, before arriving at a scientific self-understanding through which to build a better society.’

And then there was ‘the more elaborate social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’. These views were an attempt to marry the organic nature of evolution to history, but unfortunately, became embedded in the Zeitgeist of the time and seem to us nowadays as distinctly racist.

Rees, however, spends considerable time explaining the views of Peter Turchin, who in 2010 was an ecologist in the  University of Connecticut. ‘Why, Turchin wanted to know, were the efforts in medicine and environmental science to produce healthy bodies and ecologies not mirrored by interventions to create stable societies? Surely it was time ‘for history to become an analytical, and even a predictive, science’… he proposed a new discipline: ‘theoretical historical social science’ or ‘cliodynamics’ – the science of history.’

Of course, unlike objective attributes such as, say, temperature or infective processes, ‘‘historical facts’ are not discrete items that exist independently, awaiting scholars who will hunt them down, gather them up and catalogue them safely. They need to be created and interpreted. Textual archives might seem relatively easy to reproduce, for example, but, just as with archaeological digs, the physical context in which documents are found is essential to their interpretation: what groups, or items, or experiences did past generations value and record… What do the marginalia tell us about how the meanings of words have changed?’

A good example perhaps: ‘is it really possible to gauge subjective happiness by counting how many times words such as ‘enjoyment’ or ‘pleasure’ occur in the more than 8 million books digitised by Google?’ Or another: ‘a quantitative study of American slavery, in which Fogel [Robert Fogel, joint winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in economic history] used plantation records to show that slavery was an economically efficient means of production, and to suggest that Southern slaves were better off than many Northern wage-earners.’ And yet, ‘plantation records didn’t fully capture the nature of slavery. How could they, when they were created by one group of humans at the expense of another?’

It is for this reason, among others, that ‘a positivist language of science – of testing hypotheses against data – sits uncomfortably with the practice of history.’ Are historical facts (a debatable term at best) really ‘things’? Turchin seemed to think so.  ‘Inspired by the work of the American sociologist Jack Goldstone, who in the 1990s had tried to translate Alexis de Tocqueville’s philosophy into mathematical equations, Turchin began to relate population size to economic output (and, critically, levels of economic inequality) as well as social and political instability… Social structure, for example, could be treated as a product of health and wealth inequality – but to measure either, you need to choose approximate and appropriate proxies. The process was further complicated by the fact that, when you’re working with a chronology that spans millennia, these proxies must change over time. The texture of that change might be qualitative as well as quantitative.’ You get the idea: apples and oranges.

And anyway, what makes anybody believe that the Natural Sciences (which Turchin was trying to emulate) are actually capable of producing ‘objective knowledge’? ‘Half a century of research in the history of science has shown that this perspective is deeply flawed. The sciences have their own history – as indeed does the notion of objectivity – and that history is deeply entwined with power, politics and, importantly, the naturalisation of social inequality by reference to biological inferiority. No programme for understanding human behaviour through the mathematical modelling of evolutionary theory can afford to ignore this point… meta-analyses and abstract mathematical models depend, by necessity, on manipulating data gathered by other scholars, and a key criticism of their programme is that cliodynamicists are not sensitive to the nuances and limitations of that data.’

By this stage in the essay, I was not only confused, I was also disappointed. But, could I really expect an answer to the arbitrariness of historical data when even my brother and I, in describing an event from our shared childhood, can never agree on what really happened? It’s all perspective in the end; as Nietzsche said, ‘There are no facts, only interpretations.’

And anyway, my brother doesn’t know what he’s talking about…

Does everything have meaning?

What is the meaning of rain? No, really -what, if anything does it mean? If we ask the same question of Life, we understand immediately the type of answer required, so what is different about rain? Both are processes, of sorts, although rain has the added advantage of also being a thing -both palpable and visible- I suppose. But should that disqualify it from having meaning?

Meaning is something that stretches beyond the thing described, and expands it in ways perhaps not obvious at first glance: beyond just descriptive definition, beyond attempts at capturing it with a synonym -those are mere tautologies and add little clarity beyond finding other words to say the same thing.

It would be all too tempting to resort to simply describing rain’s cause -its meteorological significance; or suggesting its value in the sustenance of Life -but these would only describe its purpose -what it does- not its meaning. There is surely more to rain than water falling from the sky, just as there is more to Life than growth, reproduction, and change.

No, it seems to me that meaning points to something else, and a grammatical equivalent might be something like a metaphor.

I suspect it was an essay in Aeon by Jeremy Mynott, an emeritus fellow at Wolfson College in Cambridge, that rekindled my wonder about meaning in the world around us: https://aeon.co/essays/the-ancient-world-teemed-with-birds-now-we-think-with-them

As he suggests, ‘Sometimes you need to look at things from outside to see them more clearly.’ And history can do that for many things -birds, for example. Before the days of over-population with its attendant pollution and habitat destruction, the much smaller aggregations of humanity were more intimately exposed to the perils -and beauty- that surrounded them.

‘The Mediterranean world of 2,500 years ago would have looked and sounded very different. Nightingales sang in the suburbs of Athens and Rome; wrynecks, hoopoes, cuckoos and orioles lived within city limits, along with a teeming host of warblers, buntings and finches; kites and ravens scavenged the city streets; owls, swifts and swallows nested on public buildings. In the countryside beyond, eagles and vultures soared overhead, while people could observe the migrations of cranes, storks and wildfowl. The cities themselves were in any case tiny by modern standards – ancient Athens, for example, had a population of about 120,000 at the height of its power in the 5th century BC.’

Things in nature impressed their physical presence on people’s daily lives to a degree now hard to imagine. ‘Not surprising either, therefore, that they also populated people’s minds and imaginations and re-emerged in their culture, language, myths and patterns of thought in some symbolic form.’ Some things -birds in his essay, at least- acquired a meaning beyond their mere physical presence.

Because Mynott is writing about the ‘meaning’ of birds, he goes on to describe how they became metaphors -there is ‘a simple progression from a descriptive fact about a bird (swallows migrate here the same time every spring), to a human comparison (that’s when we change what we wear, too) and then, in a natural and almost imperceptible segue, to making the bird represent something other than itself (a sign of spring, a reminder to start gardening, a valued guest). That is, a metaphor, something that ‘carries us across’ from one dimension of meaning to another.’

I think there is a very obvious parallel with other aspects of the natural world, too -rain, for example. And where he supplies examples of proverbs to bolster his contention of how the idea of birds has migrated into the realm of metaphor: ‘One swallow doesn’t make a summer’, there is certainly an equivalence in rain proverbs that do the same: ‘You need to save for a rainy day’, or ‘Rain does not fall on one roof alone’.

Metaphors work by having one thing stand symbolically for another, and by so doing, achieve a meaning far larger than the original.

When my children were young and beginning to learn the intricacies of language, they sounded very literal -so much so, that at times it was difficult to explain things to them without endlessly searching for another word to use for clarification: definition again. And yet, often they seemed to be searching for something more than description -and the perpetual ‘Why?’ questions that dog every parent are testament to that. No matter the skillfulness of the answer, it is seldom enough to satisfy their inner quest.

I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily indicative of children’s innate need for meaning so much as simple curiosity born of insufficient exposure to the world -or perhaps incipient mischievousness- but it is interesting that it seems to be a search for more than just a cursory explanation. Perhaps it is a developing awareness that there is more to reality than surface -an early, and tentative, exploration of Philosophy.

“Why does it rain, daddy?” my little daughter once asked. I remember the question because of her drive to understand more about rain.

“Well,” I started, unsure of the answer, to be honest, “… you know how sometimes the air around you feels wet in the summer?” I was on shaky ground already, but I pressed on when she nodded her head enthusiastically. “And sometimes if you look really hard you can see little water droplets on the window glass?”

I have to admit I was making it up as I went along, but her little face seemed so eager for more, I embellished it a bit. “Well, those drops appear when wet air touches something cool like the glass in the window. It’s called condensation,” I added, but more for my sake than hers, I think.

“So, is that where rain comes from, daddy?” She was obviously confused that windows didn’t usually rain.

“Uhmm, no but it was just a way of explaining that wet air sometimes condenses on cold things, and it’s really cold way up in the sky…”
“So…” I could almost see her processing the information behind her eyes. “So, are there windows up in the sky…?” That didn’t seem right to her, I could tell.

“No, but there are little particles of dust up there, and they’re really cold, so water droplets condense on them. And when there are a lot of them, you see them as clouds…” I was way beyond my depth, so I rather hoped she’d be satisfied with that. But I could see by her face that the machinery inside was still churning.

“So, clouds are rain before it falls…” There, I had told her all I knew about rain -more than I knew, in fact.

Suddenly, a large smile grew on her face, and her eyes twinkled mischievously. “You’re just kidding me, aren’t you daddy?”

My heart sank. We were walking along a trail in the woods at the time, and had stopped to rest in a little clearing; I hadn’t thought to bring an encyclopedia. I can still remember the flowers peeking through the grass like children thinking they could hide in plain sight and I shrugged to hide my embarrassment. “What do you mean, sweetheart?”

She grabbed my hand and looked up at my face. “There’s more to rain than clouds, daddy…”

I tried to look like the wise parent, but she was having none of it.

“Why do you say that, sweetie?” I said and held my breath.

She sighed and rolled her eyes like she’d seen me do so often. Then she pointed to an enormous fluffy cloud that was floating lazily just over our heads. “Miss Janzen at kindergarten says that rain happens when clouds cry…”

I didn’t know whether to nod in agreement -it was a kind of vindication of my explanation- or stay still, in case it was a trap.

She suddenly blinked and stared at the cloud. “You can tell that cloud doesn’t have any rain in it…” I smiled and waited for the explanation. “It looks happy, doesn’t it…?”

I’m not sure, but I suspect my daughter already knew about metaphors, even if she’d never heard the word… and perhaps she’d grasped the meaning of rain, as well…

The Whirligig of Time

Every once in a while, I come across something that seems at odds with the history I’ve learned. Admittedly I’m the product of an older, more gendered Zeitgeist, and in the intervening years, have struggled to accept what I might once have termed historical revisionism. Each epoch seems to want to believe its own version of the past and interprets artifacts -whether newly discovered, or housed in dark drawers in museums- accordingly. Traditionally, of course, history has been written by the victors -the powerful- and so it has always been a matter of conjecture how accurately ethnographical descriptions of the time, captured the lived reality of the era.

It is often tempting, either through lack of sufficient historically corroborative evidence, or currently prevailing attitudes, to denigrate the achievements of women in the past. Evidence of the contrary, must needs run a gauntlet of well-entrenched, and therefore not entirely impartial judges. The current of paradigms run deep and largely unnoticed until challenged, and the resulting turbulence, no matter how insightful and epiphanous, can nonetheless be unsettling.

How can history change if it has already occurred? Is it merely interpretational -like the apocryphal two people crossing the same bridge seeing different bridges? Or more nuanced, more coloured by our present day conceits than we would like to think -the hammer judging everything to be a nail?

Sometimes a sturdier explanation arises from evidence being viewed with modern and, hopefully, more objective techniques -techniques like, say, DNA, or perhaps, sophisticated chemical analyses which largely remove any subjective biases.

One such study I discovered while strolling through the various online magazines to which I am habituated, seemed unusually compelling. It was an article written by Sarah Zhang in the Atlantic that outlined how the analysis of dental plaque in the remains of a medieval woman revealed the existence of hitherto unexpected female scribes in what had been seen as an almost exclusively male profession. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/01/the-woman-with-lapis-lazuli-in-her-teeth/579760

A brilliant blue was found in the dental tartar of a 1000 year old woman buried at a women’s monastery in Dalheim, Germany. ‘It was ultramarine … a pigment that a millennium ago could only have come from lapis lazuli originating in a single region of Afghanistan. This blue was once worth its weight in gold. It was used, most notably, to give the Virgin Mary’s robes their striking color in centuries of artwork. And the teeth that were embedded with this blue likely belonged to a scribe or painter of medieval manuscripts… [T]hese embedded blue particles in her teeth illuminate a forgotten history of medieval manuscripts: Not just monks made them. In the medieval ages, nuns also produced the famously laborious and beautiful books. And some of these women must have been very good, if they were using pigment as precious and rare as ultramarine.’

Anita Radini from the University of York, and her co-author Christina Warinner, a microbiome researcher at the Max Planck Institute were actually looking for other things, but became captivated by the blue particles on the teeth.

Alison Beach, an historian at Ohio State University who studies female scribes from 12th century Germany has cataloged the overlooked contributions of women to medieval book production and she noted that ‘while most manuscripts with signatures are signed by men, the vast majority of manuscripts are unsigned. But a small number of surviving manuscripts are signed by women, and scholars have found correspondence between monks and nuns about book production.’

The question about the lapis lazuli was obviously how it got into the woman’s dental plaque in the first place, though. Was it through some sort of medicine, or even from devotional kissing the of the manuscript? Both of these things were ruled out by knowledge of contemporary practices, and the fact that the particles were particularly fine suggested that ‘the stones were purposefully made into pigment.’

Finally, it was concluded that ‘two scenarios are most likely: The woman was a painter who could have ingested ultramarine paint while licking her brush to a point, or she breathed in the powder while preparing pigment for herself or someone else.’

Either way, though, the findings are certainly evidence of the largely unreported roll of women in medieval life -and the respect accorded them in their areas of expertise. Admittedly, in this case the scriptors and illustrators were nuns, and presumably more educated than the vast majority of feudal peasants of the time outside of their walls -and yet, so were most of the men in the grips of that same system.

Given the intellectual equality of the genders, I wonder how much more there is about historical women we do not yet appreciate. Since women were not usually allowed to sign the religious scripts on which they had worked, how many other things were they contributing that has been lost to time? I cannot believe that men when confronted with problems, whether in trade or everyday practical issues, would not consult with their wives for solutions -especially if survival was at stake.

Of course, special cases like Hildegard von Bingen spring all too easily to mind. She was a German Benedictine abbess living between 1098 and 1179, and so roughly contemporaneous with the lapis woman (whose bones were dated to between 997 and 1162). As Wikipedia describes her, she was a ‘writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, and polymath. She is considered to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany.’ I have to admit that I only became acquainted with her because of her music, not her numerous other talents, but the very fact that she was able to be fêted in her own time despite her apparent lack of instruction in ‘the Seven Liberal Arts, which formed the basis of all education for the learned classes in the Middle Ages’ encourages me to think that others, albethey less well known, were also able to succeed along with her.

Still, I suppose we may have to await future discoveries to appreciate just how much women in less publicized arenas contributed to the well-being of their families, or the success of their husbands engaged in other endeavours.

But hurray for teeth, eh…?

Fake Views

Don’t you think we try too hard sometimes? And yet, in our zeal to project minorities, or those less favoured in our community in a more favourable light, I suppose we could be forgiven for cherry-picking examples of their accomplishments, or glossing over issues in which they do not excel, so long as there is no attempt to deceive. No serious effort to hyperbolize. All of us are multitudes, and usually only context decides what face we show. And that can be a problem when we judge the past by current standards. The danger is, as Shakespeare’s Antony explained about men like Caesar, ‘the good is oft interred with their bones.’

We all do it, although often unconsciously. We pick situations from the past like apples from a tree, and assume that old flavours should accord with current tastes. They seldom match, of course, so the past risks being disappointing unless we paint it differently and demonstrate its relevance and connection to the present.

Usually this involves investigation, verification and interpretation -it is seldom possible to understand a novel by picking a page at random and drawing conclusions about its contents. Especially if the story is one that hasn’t even been written. An article in Aeon, an online publication, delves into the distribution of fake miniature paintings that purport to represent aspects of Islamic science that may be misleading: https://aeon.co/essays/why-fake-miniatures-depicting-islamic-science-are-everywhere

The essay was written by Nir Shafir, a historian of the early modern Ottoman Empire, at the University of California San Diego. And as he says, ‘The irony is that these fake miniatures and objects are the product of a well-intentioned desire: a desire to integrate Muslims into a global political community through the universal narrative of science. That wish seems all the more pressing in the face of a rising tide of Islamophobia.’ But he wonders just what science the counterfeiters hoped to find. ‘These fakes reveal more than just a preference for fiction over truth. Instead, they point to a larger problem about the expectations that scholars and the public alike saddle upon the Islamic past and its scientific legacy.’

But, Shafir does raise an important question of whether the ends justify the means. ‘Using a reproduction or fake to draw attention to the rich and oft-overlooked intellectual legacy of the Middle East and South Asia might be a small price to pay for widening the circle of cross-cultural curiosity. If the material remains of the science do not exist, or don’t fit the narrative we wish to construct, then maybe it’s acceptable to imaginatively reconstruct them… However, there is a dark side to this progressive impulse. It is an offshoot of a creeping, and paternalistic, tendency to reject the real pieces of Islamic heritage for its reimagined counterparts. Something is lost when we reduce the Islamic history of science to a few recognisably modern objects, and go so far as to summon up images from thin air. We lose sight of important traditions of learning that were not visually depicted, whether artisanal or scholastic. We also leave out those domains later deemed irrational or unmodern, such as alchemy and astrology.’

‘Perhaps there’s a worry that the actual remnants of Islamic science simply can’t arouse the necessary wonder; perhaps they can’t properly reveal that Muslims, too, created works of recognisable genius. Using actual artefacts to achieve this end might demand more of viewers, and require a different and more involved mode of explanation. But failing to embrace this challenge means we lose an opportunity to expand the scope of what counted as genius or reflected wonder in the Islamic past.’

It’s an interesting point that he makes. I wonder how many other things are slipping beneath our radars -information we never had occasion to investigate. We still use pictures to disguise our own histories, of course -to freshen them up, and portray otherwise mundane realities in rosy lights. It’s not the same as adding colours to improve an already vaunted past, I suppose, but we often try to dandy up what we’ve boasted about. And the pictures that we take usually seek to portray things as we promised they’d be. Confirm what we want people to think about our lives. A vacation that we hope others would envy, we picture in glowing scenes, that disguise those moments of disappointment in the sites we visited or the food we ate.

My grandfather used to describe his early years in glowing terms, and every photograph depicted triumphs or events that made me envious. But for some reason, my father saw them differently. Life was hard for him, and there were few luxuries when he was growing up. Clearly, history is contextual, and there are as many pasts, as there are participants in it.

But because there are discrepancies in its telling, that doesn’t necessarily invalidate what we’ve tried to illustrate in selected photos. True, it’s unlikely we’ve Photoshopped the pictures, or staged them whole cloth like the Islamic miniatures, but we’re still trying to sell an image of the past that embodies the story we want believed. A story that casts us in a favourable light despite the way our circumstances may appear today.

And yet, the camouflage itself can be a façade. It hides some things merely because there is a belief they need to be disguised -veneered. But it is sometimes the perspective itself that is deceptive -or, perhaps more accurately, selective. None of us see the world through the same eyes; ‘vanquished’ and ‘victorious’ can both describe the same event, and yet colour it with different adjectives.

I have to wonder whether, in the long run, it really matters. Once it is history, it is up for grabs anyway because there is no one, lasting view of anything in that dark and smoky room. As Shakespeare’s King Henry says, ‘Presume not that I am the thing I was’.

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley

Two steps forward and one step back –isn’t that  always the way with progress? Reward coupled with unintended consequences? The Industrial Revolution with worker exploitation? Nuclear power with the Bomb. Nothing, it seems, comes without a price. Even religion, the great leveller, once established brooks no rivals. Life itself, is a succession of survivors outcompeting the other contenders.

But simply to focus on the successes is to miss the important lessons to be learned from the failures. In biology the difference between winning and losing might hinge on a single change in a single gene, or more instructively, on an adaptation of an existing organ for another, more useful function in a different environment –an exaptation. Arms and hands for wings, in the case of bats, or for fins, in the cases of aquatic mammals like whales and dolphins.

In the early days after the discovery of X-rays, their ability to see through things was thought to be miraculous, and many possible uses were suggested. It was not until much later, after countless reports of cancers, burns, hair loss and worse, that the dangers of its careless use were acknowledged. Then, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of its many unwanted side-effects, grew carefully investigated treatments like irradiation for tumours, CT scans for internal visualizations, or fluoroscopy for placement of medical kit like stents, anti-embolism balloons, etc.

Unfortunately, even nowadays, the sundry complications of progress are often inadequately predicted in advance, probably because most things are multifaceted and changing one parameter has a knock-on effect on the others. Clearing forests for agriculture changes the animals that can survive in the changed ecosystem; monoculture to maximize demand for a particular variety of crop, say, increases the likelihood that the plants –previously diverse- may not be able to withstand the onslaught of a disease or infestation that would otherwise have only affected a small portion of their number. Evolution would normally have winnowed out the susceptibles, leaving only the resistant plants to reproduce. But all of this is Grade 9 biology, isn’t it?

What led me to think about this was an article in the Smithsonian Magazine discussing the effects of making friction matches on the women and children involved in their manufacture: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/friction-matches-were-boon-those-lighting-firesnot-so-much-matchmakers-180967318/ – 6ZQ6WshMH2Ghpoys.03

‘Like many other poorly paid and tedious factory jobs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, match makers were predominantly women and children, writes Killgrove [in an article for Mental Floss]. “Half the employees in this industry were kids who hadn’t even reached their teens. While working long hours indoors in a cramped, dark factory put these children at risk of contracting tuberculosis and getting rickets, matchstick making held a specific risk: phossy jaw.” This gruesome and debilitating condition was caused by inhaling white phosphorus fumes during those long hours at the factory. “Approximately 11 percent of those exposed to phosphorus fumes developed ‘phossy jaw’ about five years after initial exposure, on average”. The condition causes the bone in the jaw to die and teeth to decay, resulting in extreme suffering and sometimes the loss of the jaw. Although phossy jaw was far from the only side-effect of prolonged white phosphorus exposure, it became a visible symbol of the suffering caused by industrial chemicals in match plants.’
So much so, that by 1892, newspapers were investigating the problem. ‘“Historical records often compare sufferers of phossy jaw to people with leprosy because of their obvious physical disfigurement and the condition’s social stigma,” Killgrove writes. Eventually match makers stopped using white phosphorus in matches, and it was outlawed in the United States in 1910.’

Civilization is the steady accumulation of successes over failures. Trials and errors –mistakes which perhaps seem to have been largely anticipatable in retrospect- summate to useable compromises. It’s how a child learns; it’s how evolution learns.

But the point of this essay is not so much to highlight the exploitation of workers in the past as to suggest that there can be sociological as well as biological evolution. After all, the etymological root of the word is the Latin evolvere –to unfold.

Occupational Safety and Health -as a distinct discipline, at least- is a relatively recent development stemming from labour movements and their concern about worker safety in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. As Wikipedia explains it: ‘The Industrial Revolution was the transition to new manufacturing processes in the period from about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840. This transition included going from hand production methods to machines, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, the increasing use of steam power, the development of machine tools and the rise of the factory system.’

Although this provided jobs and undoubtedly improved many aspects of living standards, the driving force was production, and in its early stages, had little regard for worker safety or health. Enter the labour movements in the early 19th century, along with great resistance to their demands. In many instances they were seen as antithetical to progress –antithetical to Capitalism, for that matter. And yet, in the fullness of time, the benefits of a healthy workforce to economic success evolved from an initial, grudging pretense of acceptance in some countries to a legal framework of protection in others.

There is certainly a long way to go along this path to be sure, and exploitation still seems a default that is all too easy to overlook. Especially since it is the poor and vulnerable who are usually the victims –people with little voice of their own, and even less power to resist.

But are things actually changing? Does knowledge of exploitation make a difference? We know slavery is still practiced; we know that refugees are still being brutalized and abused in places like Libya; women are still being kidnapped and sold into prostitution despite the best intentions of agencies like the World Health Organization.

So, do the gains experienced in some areas, offset the tragedies in others? We cannot appreciate the broad sweep of History in the few years we are allotted, and evolution –even social evolution- can be deceptive and disheartening. But remember the words of Khalil Gibran:

You are good when you walk to your goal firmly and with bold steps.
Yet you are not evil when you go thither limping.
Even those who limp go not backward.

I have to hope he saw something that I missed along the way…

Presume Not that I am the Thing I Was.

We are all stories, aren’t we? But as I slip further down the years, I wonder about my story. Some of it I suppose I don’t remember, and yet what I do might still be suspect –a revision I make even as I think about it. Memory doesn’t reproduce the past so much as create it. And therein lies the problem. There was a time when historical validity was only accredited to its witnesses –a first-hand account told by someone who was actually there, someone who experienced it. But we’re long past that now…

When we are dead, we become fictions; when we can no longer speak for ourselves, what we might have thought, what we might have been, is merely interpreted, as the historical fiction writer Hilary Mantel has said. And even modern historians, scrutinizing the same evidence, will often differ in their explanations of the past. Who is to choose among them –and why?

So, history isn’t fixed, as we often assume, and it certainly isn’t static –it changes with new evidence, or transmogrifies according to the prevailing Weltanschauung. As Mantel sees it, history is not the past –it’s a method we’ve evolved to organize our ignorance of it. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it.

I think that what occasioned this reminiscence was a short feature in the BBC news about a fifteen-year old toilet sign found in Italy at a farmhouse B&B: http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-40936110. The sign was attempting to use emojis to indicate that the toilet was not restricted to any particular sexual orientation. It had three symbols –one of a man, one of a woman, and one of a gay person. Unfortunately, the latter is depicted as a rather flouncy individual who is clearly neither male nor female, but rather an amalgam of them both, I suppose. Why it was felt necessary to suggest that ‘gay’ belonged to neither group is unknown. At any rate, the LGBTQ community reasonably complained of the sign’s confusion of sexual orientation with gender identity and the (new) owners obligingly removed it, even though it had apparently been covered up when they bought the property, and had remained so. They had meant no offence.

Things change. Sensitivities change. And signs are expected to reflect that… I, too, am caught up in the current ethos and find the sign unfeeling, and ill-informed, but things were different then, I think. The world was a different place for sure; the Umwelt itself was less evolved. But nonetheless, it makes me wonder whether we can ever understand the lived-world of another era. Whether even I can ever understand my own historical self, and so continually amend what I can remember of him –and continually rewrite the story…

I was waiting for a bus on the outskirts of town the other day, and sought the tiny shade afforded by a small wooden bench. Two older ladies arrived and seemed more in need of shade and rest than me, so I offered them the only gift I had –the bench. But it was in a covered structure and under a tree, so I stayed nearby in its cooling shadow.

They were both in their eighties, I would think, and both wore loose floral-print cotton dresses like I think my mother would have favoured. They wore their hair like her, too –short and manageable under almost identical blue hats. In fact, the more I looked, the more like her they seemed –they could all have been sisters, although my mother was an only child and died many years ago. It’s strange how often older women seem similar. Men do too, I suppose, but I notice the women more. Age homogenizes their faces, and memory standardizes their appearance… Blends them together into vague familiarity like apples in a crate. Fish in a tank.

I contented myself with leaning against the tree and staring idly down the street lost in thought… Okay, I was listening to them; I can’t resist an argument and they’d been going at it even before they sat down –some sort of family thing.

“You have to admit that father was ahead of his time, though, Thea…” The only difference between them I could detect was the colour of the flower pattern on their dresses. It was the red flower who was talking.

Thea, the blue-flower, sighed loudly. “What on earth makes you say that, Flo?”

Flo promptly crossed her arms and glared at her sister. It was hard to tell from where I leaned, but I think she rolled her eyes because it pulled her lip upwards and something rattled in her mouth. “Remember? He encouraged her to work outside the home, and told everybody about how women should have the same rights as men. Nobody thought like that in those days.”

“What house did you grow up in, Flo? He wouldn’t even let me work in that restaurant, remember?”

Flo shrugged at the memory. “You were too young, Thea. He was protecting you…”

“Then why didn’t he protect Ronny? He had a paper route when he was even younger.” Thea seemed pout for a moment. “And anyway, he didn’t encourage mom to work until he lost his job that time. And even then, she had to clean the house and cook the dinners for us when she got home.”  She stared at Flo. “That’s not equal rights and it’s certainly not ahead of the times…”

Flo stared at her sister with a slight tilt to her head. “Well, how about when Ronny came out? Father welcomed him back into our house…” I could sense that Flo was a bit hesitant to speak about her brother, though.

Thea sighed loudly again, but this time contemptuously. “Only after five years, Flo! And even then, it was because mom kept phoning Ronny and inviting him over. Father had nothing to do with it! And remember, the only reason Ronny agreed to come was because it was a family dinner –their anniversary- and yet, Father wouldn’t even speak to him at first. He totally ignored him at the table.” She shook her head sadly and looked at her sister. “Ronny was so hurt. Remember he even left the table and went to sit in the living room until mom convinced him to come back? And then, years later, Father had the gall to tell everybody that he’d never harboured any grudges against homosexuals? That he’d always accepted them?”

“Father’s last boss was a homosexual, wasn’t he?”

Thea glanced my way and her eyes strayed onto my face for a second, as if fleeing from her sister’s naïveté. “Father always pretended to move with the current, Flo. But deep down, he was a man of his time. That was the way things were when he was growing up. There’s no sense in applying today’s values to another era. It took slow and painful steps to get here…” She touched her sister gently on the shoulder. “It’d be like blaming the doctors in his day for not having discovered penicillin.”

Flo looked down the street and saw the bus approaching. “You certainly remember a different Father from me, Thea…”

Thea shrugged as she fished around in her purse for the fare. “We’ve always seen the world through our own eyes, Flo. It’s a puzzle, eh?” she added as they both boarded a bus that was not mine.

I moved to the bench, now in deeper shade, and thought about what Thea had said about their differences being a puzzle.  I remembered fragments of a thought Alan Watts, had written back in the sixties. It was something about there being a difference between puzzles and mysteries: puzzles are meant to be solved, but mysteries are meant to be enjoyed. Wondered about. Tasted. I think I’d prefer to think of the past as a mystery, you know. That we each taste the world with different eyes; there’s no one history that satisfies us all… And therein lies the wonder.

 

Sheep in Wolf Clothing

I suppose it has always happened -there’s very little that’s really new around; I still wonder why it’s necessary, though. Even through the lens of my white male privilege –my through-a-glass-darkly upbringing- I continue to wonder about these things. Why, for example, do I even have a lens? Was it necessary simply because in the chromosomal lottery, I got the Y? Or is it rather because others lack one? Others? There’s a difference, I guess: one side brings children -even the Y’s- into the world, and nourishes them until they are old enough to be independent; the other side… what, fears  that ability, despite experiencing it themselves? I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Call me naïve, but does that not make us interdependent? Partners in survival?

Anyway, despite my anguished jeremiad, and notwithstanding my somewhat childish credulity, I love it that people have always pressed against boundaries. Crossed borders. Transcended gender constraints. Limits which have been arbitrarily imposed have been challenges from time immemorial.

Until we searched, records of past successes were unfortunately few in number -hidden, or at least difficult to access- not necessarily because they failed, but more often I would suspect because history is written by the dominant. Controlled by those who commanded the prevailing power structure and had greater access to whatever educational resources were available at the time. Military and church, after all, were predominately unisexual, so it seemed rare to read about females that stood out for things other than pandering to male needs, or gaining fame as consorts to royalty.

A few exceptions proved the rule, of course. To pick only a few of my favourites of the many historical examples we were once offered: the fourth century Greek mathematician and philosopher, Hypatia; Lady Li, an artist in tenth century China; the twelfth century polymath Hildegard von Bingen. She was not only a Benedictine abbess, but also a philosopher, natural historian and writer -and she first came to my attention for her musical compositions; Fanny Mendelssohn, a composer and pianist, the talented sister of the more well-known Felix. And then there was the nineteenth century novelist Georges Sand, albeit perhaps more famous for her association with Chopin (and other famous men of the time) than her writings.

The list has recently become much, much longer -and growing- as we begin to delve into historical documents more thoroughly. It would seem that our knowledge of the past is directly proportional to the prevailing ethos –the effort expended… There have always been women who’ve excelled, but there have not always been people who wanted to hear about it…

I do, though; I’m always inspired by anyone who is able to critically assess that which represses them, and come up with a solution. I suppose most of the answers are variations on the same methodology, and yet they still make me want to cheer. An article I found in the BBC news was particularly heartening I think –especially its little twist: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-39705424

It’s the story of a woman in Tanzania who ran away from an abusive husband and ended up in the ‘small Tanzanian town of Mererani, in the foothills of Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro – the only place in the world where mining for a rare, violet-blue gemstone called tanzanite takes place.’

Only men were allowed in the mine so, like in a fairy story, she disguised herself as a man and went to work. She called herself ‘Uncle Hussein’. ‘”I acted like a gorilla,” she says, “I could fight, my language was bad, I could carry a big knife like a Maasai [warrior]. Nobody knew I was a woman because everything I was doing I was doing like a man.”’

And, just like in a real fairy story, ‘after about a year, she struck it rich, uncovering two massive clusters of tanzanite stones. With the money that she made she built new homes for her father, mother and twin sister, bought herself more tools, and began employing miners to work for her.’

But, as in all parables like this, ‘her cover was so convincing that it took an extraordinary set of circumstances for her true identity to finally be revealed. A local woman had reported that she’d been raped by some of the miners and Pili [Uncle Hussein’s real name] was arrested as a suspect.’

Of course, the truth was soon revealed and she was released. ‘But even after that her fellow miners found it hard to believe they had been duped for so long. […] Pili has built a successful career and today owns her own mining company with 70 employees. Three of her employees are women, but they work as cooks not as miners. Pili says that although there are more women in the mining industry than when she started out, even today very few actually work in the mines. “Some [women] wash the stones, some are brokers, some are cooking,” she says, “but they’re not going down in to the mines, it’s not easy to get women to do what I did.”

She has married again, although ‘Finding a husband when everyone is accustomed to regarding you as a man is not easy, Pili found, though eventually she succeeded. “The question in his mind was always, ‘Is she really a woman?'” she recalls. “It took five years for him to come closer to me.”’

‘Pili’s success has enabled her to pay for the education of more than 30 nieces, nephews and grandchildren. But despite this she says she wouldn’t encourage her own daughter to follow in her footsteps. “I’m proud of what I did – it has made me rich, but it was hard for me,” she says. “I want to make sure that my daughter goes to school, she gets an education and then she is able to run her life in a very different way, far away from what I experienced.”’

I love the kind of story of someone encountering and then overcoming seemingly overwhelming odds. I suppose we all do –it’s a classic fable, isn’t it? A veni, vidi, vici episode to be sure. But I am still saddened that it has to be like this. Not that there have to be challenges, you understand –it would be a boring world that offered none- nor even that only a few manage to see it as an opportunity, a fence that needs climbing. No, I’m sad that after all this time, whether out of fear or mistrust, there are still walls like this.

And yet, I remember lines from a poem by William Ernest Henley –‘Invictus’: ‘In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance my head is bloody, but unbowed’. And, more especially, the last stanza: ‘It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.’

Let us all hope so…

 

 

 

 

 

Are Human Rights Contingent?

Here’s a question: are human rights contingent or emergent? In other words, do they depend on the circumstances and the cultural milieu? Do they depend on the context in which the events in question are imbedded, and maybe even the time-frame –the Epoch? Or, do they exist a priori and exist no matter what the circumstances and so transcend any particular event? An existential consideration, to be sure, but an important one.

If I read history correctly, human rights likely began contingently. Indeed the very word ‘right’ suggests their origin as something granted to someone under specific circumstances. They were guaranteed to someone by whoever possessed sufficient power to do so. And as time passed, these rights grew –evolved- and the context enlarged. So, when the power became invested in the populace at large, the rights took on a life of their own and seemed to be  inalienable and self-evident -no longer granted, but obviously existing: they were emergent.  They accreted new considerations and enlarged, and are evolving still.

Rights continue to be a moving target. As societies mature, their foundational principles come to be read in a new light. Emergent or contingent..? Alas, as we add new limbs to the ever-evolving animal, we tend to be revisionist and judgmental about its more embryonic forms, even though we’re seeing them through modern eyes, and modern prejudices…

And yet some things seem almost suited to temporal bigotry. I’m thinking here of the current controversy over Trinity Western University –a private, Christian institution- and its decision to open a law school: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/04/11/trinity-western-university-law-school-bc_n_5134482.html  This came on the heels of a 2009 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada overturning a challenge by the British Columbia College of Teachers who claimed that the university shouldn’t be able to grant teaching degrees because it opposed gay unions.  And, as the article outlines: at the time, students were required to sign an agreement not to engage in activities that were “biblically condemned,” including “homosexual behaviour.”  The agreement is now known as the ‘Community Covenant’.

The controversy over the proposed law school is not so much the result of any official opposition -the Law Society of British Columbia, the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, and B.C.’s Advanced Education Ministry have all given at least preliminary approval- it is rather that the gay and human rights community questions the suitability of the university to teach supposedly neutral and unbiased Law, when it seems to have a fundamental difference in values from much of  the society outside their walls. The Huffington Post article reports that the president of the university, Bob Kuhn, is up front about it: Kuhn said prospective students aren’t asked about their sexual orientation during the application process, and he said all students are welcome at the school — as long as they agree to abide by the community covenant. If a gay or lesbian or bi student wished to come to Trinity Western University and wished to comply with the community covenant as it’s written, then there’s no problem,” he said.

True, students that disagree with the tenets of the university need not apply –there is no compulsion at stake -merely a principle. But isn’t that what should matter the most? Surely those who accept principles that discriminate against minority positions must not expect neutrality at the end. If nothing else, the example it sets is not a balanced one.

My worry is not that an excellent academic institution like Trinity Western would not competently and rigorously adhere to all legal requirements, but more that the underlying spirit of its presentation would be framed in a context that does not reflect the diversity of the multicultural society it must serve;  it is a madrassa that pretends inclusivity.

I’m sure that a graduate of the school would attempt neutrality in the real world. After all, she would be free to refuse a case if it conflicted with her values and refer it to a colleague who perhaps would view the issue in a different light. The law can be a demanding master.

And yet I can’t help but wonder if those less than democratic values that necessitated a ‘community covenant’ are the thin edge of a wedge that threatens to skew the defence of what we have come to regard as basic societal rights and nudge them into an unspoken yet contingent position again. Rights are fragile enough as is. Although guaranteed in law or constitution, they still require more than fear of punishment to ensure they are respected. We all have to feel they are important. And not just when there is no cost to us or society at large. Sometimes there are sacrifices required; sometimes we have to swallow our distaste and step back a little to think about the ramifications of not applying the right equally and under all circumstances.

But rights are about justice, not punishment; laws are about consensus not fear. And neither rights nor law should live in fear of circumstance. Even Shakespeare recognized this so many years ago and in such a different time:

We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
And let it keep one shape, till custom make it
Their perch and not their terror.