Posts Tagged ‘righteous indignation’

At the United Nations two weeks ago, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird spoke out against child marriage. Great. But Canada officially doesn’t fund any international aid agency that provides access to abortion (even by simply providing referals). When asked to clarify about this, International Development Minister Christian Paradis confirmed that this ban extends to agencies helping victims of child marriage and war rape.

In case you are not disgusted by this policy, girls who become pregnant are not actually physically mature (their pelvises and birth canals aren’t physically developed enough for having a baby), resulting in higher mortality and greater risk of other health complications. This is all exacerbated by the socioeconomic conditions in which child marriage tends to be practiced, which tend to limit access to proper health care. And the right of a rape survivor to end a pregnancy seems like a no-brainer. (To say nothing of the right to bodily autonomy. That’s something the Harper Government doesn’t like to be reminded of.)

Below are the texts of three emails I wrote—to Baird, Paradis, and my local MP (who is not a Conservative). Feel free to adapt these letters if you’d like to send one of your own. I’ll be posting any responses I receive in a later post.

Letter 1:

Dear Minister Baird,

You recently spoke to the United Nations about the need for more action on child and forced marriages. Yet last week, International Development Minister Christian Paradis said that Canada will not fund projects that give such child brides, or survivors of rape in war zones, access to abortions.

I understand that this policy is consistent with the government’s decision not to fund abortion services under its global maternal health plan. However, the need for an exception to this policy in cases of child marriage and war rape is obvious and pressing. According to Human Rights Watch, girls under the age of 20, and especially those under the age of 15, who become pregnant are more likely to die of complications from pregnancy and face other serious health consequences, largely due to their physical immaturity. Further, the right of women who become pregnant as a result of rape to terminate their pregnancy should be beyond question.

While I applaud your efforts to curb the practice of child marriage worldwide and to promote maternal health, survivors of sexual violence need protection as well, and sometimes abortion is a necessary part of that process. I urge you to reconsider this policy and stop leaving rape survivors behind.



Letter 2:

Dear Minister Paradis,

You recently said that Canada’s government will not fund international aid projects that allow access to abortions for child brides and survivors of war rape.

I understand that this policy is consistent with the government’s decision not to fund abortion services under its global maternal health plan. However, the need for an exception to this policy in case of child marriage and war rape is obvious and pressing. According to Human Rights Watch, girls under the age of 20, and especially those under the age of 15, who become pregnant are more likely to die of complications from pregnancy and face other serious health consequences, largely due to their physical immaturity. Further, the right of women who become pregnant as a result of rape to terminate their pregnancy should be beyond question.

Abortion is sometimes a necessary part of health care for women and girls in these horrifying situations. It is hypocritical of the government to speak against sexual violence and child marriage yet deny survivors the care they need. I urge you to reconsider this policy and stop leaving rape survivors behind.



Letter 3:

Dear [MP],

Last week, shortly after Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird spoke at the United Nations denouncing sexual violence and child marriage, International Development Minister Christian Paradis confirmed that Canada would not fund any aid agency that provided these survivors of rape with access to abortions.

This policy prevents girls from accessing necessary health care. Girls who become pregnant are still not physically mature, and face higher mortality and other health consequences as a result. Furthermore, the right of rape survivors to be able to choose to end a pregnancy should go without saying.

As a resident of [riding], I urge you, when Parliament resumes, to work towards changing this policy. Preventing violence against women worldwide should be a bipartisan goal, and treating survivors of such violence is just as important.




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File under “I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit.”

About a week ago, a small tempest erupted in the science blogosphere over a remark made by Dr. Dario Maestripieri, a professor at the University of Chicago, on his Facebook page. The comment read, in full:

My impression of the Conference of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans. There are thousands of people at the conference and an unusually high concentration of unattractive women. The super model types are completely absent. What is going on? Are unattractive women particularly attracted to neuroscience? Are beautiful women particularly uninterested in the brain? No offense to anyone.. [sic]

Screenshots of the offending status have been spread far and wide, and a few good commentaries on why this statement is problematic and offensive have been written by, among others, Dr. Isis, DrugMonkey, and Janet D. Stemwedel. I encourage you to read these posts, and at least some of the comments, because I don’t intend to explain in detail why this post is so unfortunate here. Suffice it to say, in DrugMonkey’s succinct words,

Don’t do this. It’s sexist, juvenile, offensive and stupid. For a senior scientist it is yet another contribution to the othering of women in science.

There is still sexism in science. I am most pleased and heartened to see established scientists, like the bloggers I linked to above and (allegedly) some of Dr. Maestripieri’s colleagues on Facebook, speak out against it. Behaviour like Dr. Maestripieri’s contributes to an uncomfortable work environment for female scientists, an environment that makes many of us question whether having a job in the field we love is worth putting up with such condescension and objectification.

Don’t believe this? (cf. these guys, and kudos to the commenters who have already thrashed them.) Let me tell you something.

I am a young female scientist.

And Dr. Maestripieri holds an appointment in one of the academic sections to which I’m applying to do my PhD.

His comment, while extremely distateful to me, is nowhere near brazen enough to make me withdraw my application, and isn’t likely to weigh very heavily among all the other factors I’ll have to consider when I decide which school to attend. But if all else turned out to be equal, this comment could damn well tip the balance. Do I want to have to potentially interact with a man who’s made it clear that he judges female scientists based on their looks first?

And you know what else? If I had been considering joining Dr. Maestripieri’s lab, I would be running the fuck away from that application right now. If I were working for him, I’d have to assume that he’s judging me based on my appearance, and that he’s perfectly comfortable talking about my appearance to me or to colleagues. That’s the sort of academic environment that I want to avoid, and one that I shouldn’t have to put up with.

To be clear, I don’t care whether professors, or anyone really, mentally rate people’s attractiveness; I think most of us do this at least some of the time. But when this thought process leads to unprofessional behaviour, be it overt harassment, subtle differences in treatment based on looks, or comments like this that both make their female colleagues uncomfortable and tacitly endorse this sort of behaviour in others, it is not acceptable.

Dr. Maestripieri’s comment is far from enough to drive me away from a science career. But it could well drive me, and other women, away from his lab, his department, and his university. As far as I’m concerned, it’s their loss.

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Back in the day, the day being the last semester of grade eight, I attended a school run by a Baptist church. I knew a lot of very conservative evangelical Christians. They were all really nice, caring people. I think they would all have literally given the shirt off their back to someone in need.

Around this time, I was becoming more politically aware and beginning to follow both Canadian and American politics. My opinions tended to be much more liberal than those of most of my peers and teachers. And this was fine. My grade eight history teacher, a conservative Christian like all the others at the school, encouraged my class to talk about the hot topics of the day, one of which was, of course, abortion. And while he made his own opinions quite clear, he definitely wanted us to form our own, not to parrot his. This is beside my point, though. The point is the opinion I consistently heard about abortion rights from the conservatives—adults and teens alike—that I interacted with. They always—always—stressed that abortions should be available for women who were raped or whose life was at risk from the pregnancy. Always.* (They may have venerated a rape survivor’s choice not to terminate a pregnancy as a Christian thing to do, but this was always a choice.)**

That was more than ten years ago. Now I hear on a regular basis about politicians speaking in support of and even trying to enact legislation that would ban abortion even in those cases. I’m pretty sure that, even a few U.S. election cycles ago, no mainstream politician could have gotten away with saying such a thing. I glanced through some Gallup data, and it seems that the proportion of the American population that believes abortion should be legal “under certain circumstances” hasn’t changed much over the past decade. If public opinion hasn’t changed dramatically, why has public discourse changed? Or is it just my perception that it has?

*Data from Gallup: As of last year, about 70% of self-identified pro-lifers believe abortion should be legal to protect the health or life of the mother, and about 60% support abortion rights for rape/incest victims.

**Then again, maybe all those people, had I asked, would have claimed that date rape wasn’t really rape, because, you know, that slut shouldn’t have been drinking/partying in the first place.

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Consider this a public service announcement.

Do you know the warning signs of satire? Many don’t—til it’s too late, and they’re left saying, “Well, it’s not very well-written anyways”, or “That’s certainly not as good as A Modest Proposal“.

You may be at risk of satire if you’re reading about a controversial topic. If you notice plentiful stereotypes, a cliche-laden or overly-serious style, and an opinion that just seems too outrageous to be possible, consult your sense of humour immediately*.

Satire can be hard to spot, but remember, early detection saves face. Learn the signs. Together, we can defeat satire.


Okay, serious time now. I only found out about this microcontroversy after the fact, but it got me right in the pontifical cortex (a part of the brain that I just made up).

This sort of story happens relatively often. Someone writes a satirical piece; some people interpret it as serious and FREAK OUT; then they realize they’ve been had and make bumbling statements like “well it was bad writing so OBVIOUSLY no one could tell it was satire” and/or “well it’s not even good satire”.

Actually, it often is.

The best kind of satire is the kind that almost makes you believe it’s real**. Often that’s because it’s on an extremely polarizing topic, so that there may exist people loony enough to hold such “satirical” beliefs. As a result, there will always be a number of people who get taken in by clever satire and react to it publicly. Then they look pretty stupid. And yeah, maybe they should feel stupid for a little while, but you can’t blame them very much. But those standard defenses they mention—bad writing, and bad satire—annoy the frak out of me. For one, given a basic level of writing competence, perfectly polished prose is not required for biting satire—though it always helps. And anyways, the writing in question is not always bad! Take the “perfect husband” editorial at the centre of the most recent controversy as an example. I’d say the writing is about average, maybe a bit ahead of average, compared to what I’ve seen of undergraduate-level writing. It does shed cliches like a cat sheds fur (ahem), but it does so effectively, using them to make the tone flippant and parody the breezy style of women’s magazines.

The other reflex defense is to claim that the satire itself is bad. This is mildly amusing, but mostly annoying, because the fact that they believed it at first demonstrates that it was good satire. This particular claim also always seems to invoke Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. As if it were the Platonic ideal of satires. I suspect that fewer people have read it (or remember it, at least) than refer to it. (Here, you can discreetly visit this link! I won’t tell.) A Modest Proposal is undoubtedly a classic, but saying “It’s not that I can’t recognize satire; it’s just that you can’t write it!” is such an obvious tell. Don’t be embarrassed about it: congratulate the person who duped you!

There are, of course, cases where the converse was actually true. This usually happens when truly tasteless racist/homophobic/sexist etc. things have been said or written, and then fauxpologies claiming that satire was intended were issued. I would argue—though data on this are probably nearly impossible to obtain—that in most of these cases, the vast majority of people reading/hearing these things did not take them as satire. Is satire, then, entirely in the eye of the beholder? To gloss over a myriad of issues, the context, author’s identity, and writing style should at least provide a few clues either way. And, though it hurts me ever to have to identify something explicitly as satirical (e.g. with mock-html <satire></satire> tags), sometimes those are a good idea. I once casually mentioned how *excited* I was about the Sex and the City movie in an email, and the recipient wasted hours of his life watching several episodes and writing me a concerned reply to say “Is this really you?”

Or we could go back to the 90s, and end all our sarcastic statements with an eyeroll and “NOT!”


*Or stop listening to Rush Limbaugh. Sometimes the real thing is indistinguishable from parody. Sometimes you have to pretend the real thing is a parody in order not to lose all faith in humanity.

**You’d think that The Onion can’t get away with this any more, but apparently it can.

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Bill C-279 is “An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code (gender identity and gender expression)”. It’s going through first reading in Parliament and there was some debate on it last Friday. You can see speeches in Parliament from this debate here and read the text of the bill here. The bill’s goal is to add gender expression and gender identity to the rights protected by the Canadian Human Rights Act and to make crimes motivated by discrimination based on gender expression and identity (i.e. transphobia) hate crimes—that is, subject to more stringent sentencing.

Let me once again urge everyone in Canada to contact their MP and tell them to vote for this bill. (Here is where you can find out who your MP is and how to contact him or her.) (Oh, and tell your MP to read this.) The bill was passed by the last Parliament but didn’t make it through the Senate before election time, so had to go back to square one—with a Conservative majority this time.

Reading through the speeches for and against this bill, I’m struck by one thing—and it’s not the stupid, ignorant “bathroom bill” claims, which are bogus anyways. It’s the insistence by its opponents that this bill is unnecessary. Because human rights tribunals have ruled in favour of trans people already, citing the clause against sex discrimination. You know what? That’s great that some judges found a way to interpret the law so as actually to protect people. But that still doesn’t mean trans people are actually protected by law. Because hey, sex isn’t gender, and it certainly isn’t gender expression, and saying transgenderism falls under sex for legal purposes is, to me, just like saying “She used to be a man” or “X, who was born a woman but thinks she’s a man”. It’s denying what people are saying about their own experience. It’s insisting someone shouldn’t be offended because you’re not being offensive. It’s mansplaining. Pat on the head, get back to work, I can’t see your problem so it must not be there.

And you know what else? “Oh my god, I don’t know if we should extend human rights to this class of people, what about all the other people who will have to worry about other people’s rights now? It’s so hard and confusing to have to give people who are different from me their fundamental human rights. Oh my goddddd.”

(I suggest trying to be a bit more coherent than this when you contact your MP.)

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Well, that’s a slight mischaracterization—one tale involves an entire province’s schools rather than a local school board. But please indulge me in my shameless Dickens-parroting cliche, since I’m about to go on a “think of the children” rant and there will be a happy ending.

First, meet Paul Picard, the director of the Windsor-Essex District Catholic School Board* in Windsor, Ontario. He is a man with a vision, and his vision is this: a modernized role for libraries in his schools, with readier access to computers and the internet and with teachers assisting students with their online research. No doubt some good would come of this arrangement, for skill using online media is absolutely essential for many careers these days.

But he’s also fired nearly all of the school board’s librarians.

He wants, instead, teachers to spend time manning the libraries. Where this time will come from no one seems to know—they won’t be teaching less, so it must count as part of their extracurricular activity/club supervision (which I think Ontario teachers are required to do?).

Oh, and these technitastic libraries won’t have any books.

The books aren’t being destroyed or anything; they’ll be put directly into classrooms (at all levels from elementary to high school). But there won’t be a central place where students can browse books for fun or research, and there won’t be dedicated librarians to guide them through such a search.


I’m all in favour of students learning some basic computer/online research skills. It’s actually important that they get such opportunities in school because some, perhaps many, of them won’t have access to a computer at home. But that this should come at the expense of paper-based research skills (at the high school level) and dedicated reading-for-fun time (at the elementary level) appalls me. It is simply the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard. The powers that be in Ontario are concerned about the failure rate on their grade 10 literacy test and this school board wants to get rid of its librarians?

This isn’t even about the “death” of print media, though that’s how Mr. Picard seems to be trying to frame it. Because there shouldn’t be a conflict between maintaining libraries with books and offering computing facilities. They would serve different, though obviously overlapping, purposes.

Now, before I get too angry about this, the second tale: meet Timothy Habinski, a luthier (that is, a maker of harps) near Bridgetown, Nova Scotia. He too has a vision, and his vision is this: a sturdy, well-made harp for every school in Nova Scotia, made locally and provided at-cost.

Perhaps some of you think that a harp is the last thing a school needs, a mere indulgence. You are wrong.

A school with a harp can give several students the opportunity to learn to play it. Perhaps some of them will become professional musicians, but most of them won’t. That doesn’t matter. Some of those kids will stay in school because they get to play that harp. Some of them won’t be at risk of dropping out, but that harp will be something they live for when other things, their grades perhaps, are making their lives miserable. I don’t have any data to justify those statements, no; but I know music teachers who can name students in exactly those situations.

It didn’t have to be harps. Harps won’t do it for every student. For some it will be clarinet, or violin, or the school choir, or the swim team. Schools providing these sorts of activities, I suspect, produce better students. The produce graduates who have something they do for fun in addition to their diploma, something that might or might not become a career, but something that makes them happy. Every time I hear about a school board cutting music programs—or other arts programs, or sports teams, etc.—I realize that some people still think schools are just for learning things that can be covered on standardized tests, and I despair a little.

But here is someone doing the opposite. Providing a musical education unasked, and solely because he knows the good it will do for so many students. So there is a little hope.

*Yes, that’s a public school board! Not only does Canada have an unelected senate (though that might change soon), it also has state-funded religious schools!

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I have to admit that Margaret Wente’s SlutWalk critique made me squirm a little.

Yeah, I get that there are bigger problems in the world than some cop saying women in a first world city shouldn’t dress like sluts. I get that women’s studies/academic feminism does some navel-gazing that isn’t always/often productive, and I get that some dialogues within feminist circles are oblivious to privilege. *squirm*

But (a) if everyone only went after the biggest problems in the world, we’d have Africa wallpapered with condoms and mosquito nets and no treatment for the flu or something, (b) do you mean to say that some of those “incident[s] of being groped by some 20-year-old drunk” are okay, and (c) really, are we going to settle for “better than the 1970s”?

Is it really safe to assume that many of these SlutWalkers only engage in this particular sort of activism? (I honestly can’t say; I haven’t been to one.) Isn’t it possible to be involved both in helping those less privileged get to where you and in trying to raise the standards set by your own society?

Also: “So, is violence against women a non-problem? Absolutely not. It is a very large problem in a number of Canada’s South Asian communities, including some not far from York University.” Yep. Because pointing fingers at others while you’re guilty of the same thing yourself isn’t hypocrisy. I believe there is a saying about this that involves kitchenware, but I wouldn’t know, I’m too empowered to even go near a kitchen.

I note that Wente doesn’t disagree with the message of SlutWalk per se, and this is great. It’s just that she’s content with how things are because others are worse off. Can’t we fight both battles?

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