Friday, December 21, 2007

Power, Authority and Submission: Our Twisted Hero

I've recently read this tiny Korean novel by Yi Munyol. On the surface, it's the story of a school bully and some sort of resistance from one of his classmates, which ends up in submission. But as I kept on reading, I realized it is a beautifully crafted allegory about power, authority and our own dealings with them.

There are many books out there dealing with power and authority, with the injustices of totalitarian power and the multiple faces of authority, materialized in people, practices and institutions. But "Our Twisted Hero" is about our everyday life dealings with power and authority from within our own selves, with our attempts to resist what we perceive as injustice, and our submissions to it, once the price to pay for being a dissident becomes too high. Submission to an established order, which brings peace for the price of obedience should not be underestimated. Inability to deal with democracy and equality is also something to be considered, but then how are we to enable citizens to deal with the democratic exercise? And who controls the guardians of freedom?

After a revolution, after rejecting an authoritarian regime, people look for another authoritarian leader. I've seen this with my own eyes and couldn't understand it, but I realized that order and most importantly the feeling of being secure, of knowing how to handle things, is greater than the desire for freedom. And that the desire for freedom under authoritarian regimes is not matched by care for freedom once those regimes are being removed, but by a frantic search for the security of the lost order...

Photo credits:

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Stats on everyday racism in Canada

According to some recent surveys (read CBC full story), 1 in 6 Canadian adults have been subjected to racism, while 1 in 10 didn't want people from a different race as next-door neighbors. I am not a supporter of surveys, but I do realize that the power of numbers can sometimes be thought-provoking. While the numbers came from different surveys, and we do not know much about their methodology, I do see them as - at least on an anecdotal level - being supported by my everyday life environment.

While Canada is officially pursuing a policy of multiculturalism, the unofficial truth is that race or accent do raise barriers among people (and I am not referring here to the impossibility of communicating in another language, but to those barriers we construct when we decide that a person with an accent or from another race cannot possibly understand or adhere to the 'Canadian' lifestyle). I have heard on so many occasions people arguing that it is 'hard to work with Chinese' or that 'living in a building where there are Africans is unsafe'. I have heard immigrant students complaining that they do not understand their professors because of their accent. And I have heard people congratulating others for having 'such a good accent in English'.

While racism may be rejected officially, there is a long way from having a policy of multiculturalism and bragging about it, and actually having multicultural communities, where people do not relate to each other through their race or accent, but rather relate to each other as human beings first and foremost. From my own experience, I have found that having friends who share similar values and preferences has nothing to do with race, ethnicity, language, accent.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Gender equality: Womyn power or Womyn surrender?

I've been reading Ariel Levy's book on Female Chauvinist Pigs (see earlier post) recently and found myself in agreement with a certain ambiguous feeling about gender equality. To summarize one of her arguments, the idea is that women have re-claimed some of the patriarchal traditions and stereotypes and made them their own. For instance, women have re-claimed porn as not only a male pleasure, but also as a female pleasure, both in terms of being a porn actress and finding this empowering, and in terms of deriving pleasure from being a porn audience.

The ambiguity, as Levy herself notes, may come from the fact that, on one side, such practices do promote women as sexual objects as much as they empower those women who use their sexuality to make it through in life. But, regardless of being empowered or not, the fact that women are being objectified (maybe by both men and women) remains, with all the negative implications and moral issues deriving from this objectification. For Levy, this may be part of the new raunch culture, built around sex. She writes: "The truth is that the new conception of raunch culture as a path to liberation rather than oppression is a convenient (and lucrative) fantasy with nothing to back it up" (Female Chauvinist Pigs, 2005, p. 82).

American Anthropology Association has recently been engaged in a similar debate on the subject of gender empowerment. The New York Times has discussed the matter here.. The debate had to do with female circumcision and whether this practice is not oppressive only when regarded through Western eyes, while it may be empowering in the eyes of local women. The debate is interestingly related to Levy's discussion of the raunch culture: to what extent women taking charge of their own sexuality and playing on the accepted stereotypes of beauty and heterosexual sex stereotypes are empowered and/or oppressed?

Photo credits: porcelaingirl

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Gender labels/ gender categories

Moving from a binary man/woman to an unknown gender space in which boundaries between new labels are being constructed and demolished constantly:

If you know other labels, send them on!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Back to the hijab...

I'm not an expert on the various Islamic religions and this post is not about that. Coming from a Western and secular background, I have a hard time understanding and coming to terms with any type of organized religions. But I do remember a conversation I once had with my roommate about dressing codes and the headscarf. The headscarf, she told me, was the dressing code which made her feel safe. She felt naked without it. She felt men looking at her without it, and she had no clue how to handle that, especially since men for her represented violence.

It then occurred to me that I'm only grasping the religious aspect of the headscarf.
That I've been trained to 'see' only religion (and an 'alien' yet homogeneous religion, the religion of the 'Other'). That I am ignoring a whole dimension of dressing codes: the everyday life dimension. After all, haven't I chosen a longer skirt over a shorter one because I was sick and tired of being hassled on the street?

Which is not to say that religion is totally absent. But rather to allow some space for women to choose their own dressing codes, and to acknowledge that we do not live in a world without constraints. Gender relations, religion, power, social structures, definitions of normality, discourses about the 'Other' - they all mix together in our everyday lives and our identities. To realize that for the woman in question, having a headscarf or a longer dress may be - as strange as it may sound - an act of empowerment, of being in control, of being free, of being herself.

Photo credits: loufi

Friday, November 30, 2007

Nationalism series: What is missing in Hans Kohn's theory

Hans Kohn is one of the earlier critical writers on nationalism. I am always amazed how we, the generation of the late '90s-early '00s forget that an entire intellectual dialog took place before the '80s and that we can learn a lot from those dust-covered books forgotten on the bookshelves in the library.

I'm reading Hans Kohn's 1955 book Nationalism, Its Meaning and History. There's not much out there, on the all-powerful net, about Kohn (1891-1971), except a Wiki page. Yet, reading Kohn, one starts seeing the thread to which Ernest Gellner, today considered the father of nationalism studies, was responding. All of a sudden, the importance of the discourse flowing from one mind to another becomes almost visible.

So what is Kohn saying and what is he missing about nationalism? In a nutshell, his theory is that nationalism is a will, a sentiment, a state of mind, mostly referring to and pertinent in politics. "Nationalism - he writes - is a state of mind in which the supreme loyalty of the individual is felt to be due the nation-state" (p. 9). This state of mind emerged, according to Kohn, in the 18th century, initially in England (beginning with the 17th century), where it was facilitated by ideas of individual freedoms and rights and by the Puritan messianism. Building on previous social structures, English nationalism emerged as a civilized, universal and peaceful concept (though one gets to wonder from whose perspective...). The corruption of nationalism comes with German Romanticism and subsequently with the passion of the French Revolution and the Central & Eastern European national 'awakenings'.

Beyond the obvious problem of the typology civilized/ barbarian nationalism, there are some further things missing from Kohn's otherwise challenging and norm-breaking account of nationalism:

- there seems to be an implied assumption that nationalism, at least in its 'civilized' version - where it's mostly about securing the right balance between individual and collective - is peaceful and liberating. Should this be so, I think it ignores a crucial aspect of nationalism: that of establishing the boundaries of the nation against the boundaries of others, who are not only intrinsically dangerous (because they are not 'us'), but also somehow inferior.

- there is an assumption of pre-existing nationalities before nationalism (something more akin to Anthony Smith's ethnies) which allows Kohn to speak of French or Italians before the creation of the nation-states.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

On the difference between the headscarf and the hijab

In my grandma's village, all married women were wearing a headscarf. Though there were some religious remnants to this custom (a woman's head must be covered before God), most of the women were simply wearing the head scarves. My grandma always said she's cold without it. Nobody actually gave a damn about their scarves, though occasionally they were used to distinguish between urban and rural women.

Now, given that, I ask myself why the big fuss about the hijab? Where does this fuss stem from? What is so offending? Definitely not the damn piece of cloth... I mean, if some women in Western cultures wore those scarves for generations, why do we have a problem with them now?

A Calgary girl was recently prohibited from playing football because she was wearing a hijab. Now, the official reasoning is that her hijab is dangerous, cause someone can pull it during the game and hurt her. Hm, then why don't we play football naked? I mean, someone could pull our T-shirts and shorts and hurt us...

According to a UK survey done in 2006-2007, media coverage of Muslims was found to be permeated by several ideas: that there is no common ground between West and Islam, that Muslims in Britain are a threat to British traditions and ways of life, and that generally the facts were distorted and feelings of insecurity and hatred were being fosters on all sides.

Photo credits: prettydougla; aussiegal; Thomas Frederik

Monday, November 26, 2007

Women in higher education

As I was reading Ariel Levy's intriguing book Female Chauvinist Pigs, I came across some dates which were quite disturbing. Like the fact that the first female graduate student enrolled in Princeton University only in 1961. That's only a little more than a decade before I was born. By that time, my mother was studying hard to apply to university.

Here's some more dates:
  • 1877 - first woman enrolled in the Medical Department at the University of Michigan
  • 1880 - Queen's University admitted the first three female undergrads in medicine
  • 1881 - Dalhousie University admits female undergrads, followed by McGill in 1884 and University of Toronto in 1885. However, even if women were allowed to write admission exams at University of Toronto, they were not allowed to attend lectures...
  • 1895 - University of Western Ontario admits the first female undergrad
  • 1902 - a woman applying for admission at Universite Laval is rejected because of her gender, although she had a Phd from University of Minnesota...
  • 1960s - first women become tenured faculty members at University of Toronto
  • 1920 - first woman to earn an architectural degree from University of Toronto
  • 1929 - first woman to graduate from aeronautical engineering, University of Toronto

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Wired teenagers: a different homo sapiens?

I recently read two pieces of contradicting news:

- the first was about an economics professor who recently joined a Canadian University and who banned laptops in his class. He argued that ever since he did that, students are paying more attention and are being more engaged with the course material.

- the second was about a provincial minister of education who argued there is need for more funding for classroom technology. The argument is that the new generation is online, listening to music and doing their homeworks at the same time, and therefore to keep them engaged, educators need to recognize that the new wired, multi-tasking teenager needs more technology to function properly.

Is the wired teenager a new species? Is she multi-tasking indeed? In a presentation on new media, the speaker was enthusiastic about how their child was doing all those things at the same time and having the best grades. "How is this possible?" he asked rhetorically. A voice from the audience responded: "Luck!"

The truth is we do not know if the performance of multi-tasking, wired teenagers is high or low. It's true that we might need to change our definitions of 'performance'. If the purpose is to have them functioning in the new technologically mediated world, then yes, we need to imbue them with even more technology. No doubt a toddler raised with a computer will have far more skills for a tech-job than the one who first saw a computer when he was out of university.

But what if education has other purposes then preparing you for a job? Call me old fashioned, but I kinda like the idea that education is about developing your mind, your critical skills, your intellectual horizon. I like the fact that I had to learn all those useless (at least apparently useless) things, that I have a vague idea of what an integer or a derivative is, that I know what a tangent is, that I have an idea of what happened in 101-103 AD in the Roman Empire, that I know who Thomas of Aquinas was and what he had to say.

The question of the difference remains; it's not new. I think every generation had it, even those less technologically savvy... In fact, I read somewhere that it is precisely this debate between optimists and pessimists that makes change possible, because it introduces so many variables in the process that change is no longer in one unitary direction. What should I do for my next class then: ban laptops (unless we use them for class purposes) or not?

Photo credits: Mike Licht

Friday, November 16, 2007

Disability is the same of a difference as gender?

I attended a very interesting presentation today about pre-natal screening of disabilities. In short, this refers to the new medical technologies available to screen fetuses for the potential/ possible (quite a muddy area still...) disabilities. The speaker proposed that we think of disabilities in the same way we think of gender: as a social construct.

At first, I thought this will require quite a leap of faith. But I am gradually starting to see the point. My understanding is that we construct something as 'disability' by reference to a perceived normality - we have a notion of what an abled body is and what functions it is supposed to have. But this understanding is very much socially constrained. Just as gender is - we talked briefly about some practices to screen fetuses for biological sex in certain patriarchal cultures, and if there's a girl, an abortion follows just because of the sex. The speaker argued that this happens because in those cultures, being a female is just like a disease, which for the Western logic is hard to comprehend. Hard but not impossible. Western logic also had (still has I'd say) it's prejudices against women. In fact, in medieval rural families, to have a daughter was a big problem - first because it was believed she won't be that of a hard laborer, second because if she married, she would take away part of the family possessions as dowry.

There was talk about deafness and how for deaf communities, deafness is not seen as a handicap. Quite on the contrary, deaf parents would screen fetuses for a deaf child, which they would then choose to give birth (read this NY Times article and think about how they talk about deafness). At first, it sounds problematic for a non-deaf person: why would you do something like this to your child? But if I would have experienced the world in silence, would I have thought the same? Am I labeling deafness a disability because of my social world and because of my experience of being in this world? After all, we would have a totally different understanding of vision if we were flies. And probably my dog would think of me as handicapped since I cannot truly smell nor hear lots of the things out there that she perceives.

If you have the patience, skim through this page from the Hearing Foundation, deploring the birth of so 'many' children with high deafness risks and advocating for pre-natal screening for deafness. It's disturbing - and the speaker also talked about this - that there is no discussion about the implications of such screening. What is a parent supposed to do if she finds out her baby has a "high risk" of deafness? I am not being against abortion here (far from me!) but it's disturbing to see how reasons for abortion are proposed to us based on social norms about the right body. The next step is the right waist size, the right shape of the eyes, the right color of skin, the right gender... Right?

Photo credits: Dragonfly eyes

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Are we any different online?

According to the optimists, the internet is here to radically change ourselves and our world. Take Negroponte's claim that online it is no longer about your age, your race or your hair color. Since the internet is global, so we will become.

But things might be a bit more nuanced than this. For instance, this survey of why we participate online shows that most of our online presence is to send messages to each other (read friends you already have, unless you are in the online dating game) and to download and upload music and videos. It is true, some of us blog. But as I can attest, this is a fashion and not all the bloggers out there are actually saying anything meaningful (me included).

The interesting part for me was to see how we make sense of our own participation. Unfortunately, the survey author does engage with this here (but you may check this link he sent me for more info), but it seems to me that we merely replicate a globalist/ optimist discourse about the internet. With the risk of being paternalistic, I'm wondering to what extent this discourse about how the internet is connecting us and turning us into a global society, empowering our everyday lives is not merely a discourse we've borrowed without truly examining what our everyday lives look like...

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Choices and imagination in Second Life

If you haven't heard about Second Life, you're not hanging out in the right places, with the right people! Thank god, at least you are reading this blog! Well, Second Life is the new BIG thing on the net. It is a platform for a virtual world, where people join, create an avatar and then just hang out. You can play games, you can participate in concerts or in educational events, and most importantly, you can spend your money and buy things.

There is something really catchy about Second Life. Maybe it's the slogan: Your World, Your Imagination. Maybe it's the now over-rated idea that you can be a dog on the internet, free of any constraints, free to unleash your imagination and re-create yourself.

Well, as it turns out, our imagination is quite limited by the infrastructure. I wanted to be a neutral oval shape. But I couldn't (at least, not with my limited technical skills). It's good to be reminded that our imagination is never free, but always bounded by the choices we CAN make, the choices we are being provided with. Imagining my avatar was eventually constrained by the very gendered options: male or female. I wish we could break this line of difference at least in virtual reality...

For other interesting posts on Second Life and limitations of avatars, check:

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Celebrate your moon time with a tea ceremony!

I attended my first Cree tea ceremony yesterday. I didn't know that Native cultures have tea ceremonies, but it seems that they do, and they are quite old and quite important for building social ties within the community.

The purpose of yesterday's ceremony was to celebrate our grandmothers and all the women in our lives who shaped us. First, you get to purify yourself with the smoke of sage leaves. As the tea concotion is being prepared and poured into cups, the mistress of ceremony sings some simple songs, repetitive and short like mantras. We thought of our ancestors as we held hands, in a circle. Then we sipped the tea, which bound us together.

But the interesting stuff was - as always - the talk. The mistress of ceremony told us about the power of women in moon time - or menstruation. The name itself is touching - 'moon time'. I had to remind myself that night is not perceived everywhere as the time of sin and fault. In a dark night, the moon is seen as the source of light. The night doesn't have to be scary, it can equally be protective. In the end, it all comes down to the social stock of knowledge (as Alfred Schutz called it), those commonly held interpretations and explanations which a group holds: you interpret what you see according to the ways in which you are taught to.

And this gets us back to moon time: a time to celebrate the power of being a woman. How far away from Western Christian interpretive framework, in which menstruation is a constant reminder of impurity, of sin. "Women in moon time are the most powerful", said the mistress of ceremony. "Don't let anyone make fun of your moon time." That's when women are most intuitive and sensitive, that's when they are in touch with their body, that's when they release all the negativity and are re-born in love.

I think I like this social stock of knowledge better!

Photo credits:

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Race as difference

I took the test on race from Race- The Power of Illusion. Among the things I didn't know:
  • the fruit fly (and not humans) has the highest genetic variation;
  • we don't know what causes the different skin colors; and
  • if everyone would be wiped out, except people in Asia, there will still be 94% of human genetic variation.
Among the things that I did know where:
  • race doesn't predict who you are, what you like, or what disease you will inherit;
  • most likely your ancestors are connected to Nefertiti, Julius Caesar and Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, all of them together, given the intermixing that took place throughout the years.
Where does this leave race? I'd say it leaves it as a very convenient way of establishing false hierarchies among human beings.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Mixed Race Me

I have come to learn that a work of art creates more room for change than an academic paper. But I'm no artist. So I rely on other people's creativity. Check Mixed Race Me, a digital story created by a Yunnie Tsao Snyder, whom I do not know, and I probably never will, except from this little, yet powerful creation.

When are we one pure race, one pure nation? When does difference kick in, and how much difference do we need til we start seeing it as racial or ethnic difference? How white your skin til you are 'White'? What comes out of a Chinese mother and a French father, with an Anglo-Saxon ancestry? What is the child of Hungarian parents, but born and raised in Canada? What is this child if she is born and raised in Somalia? How do we ascribe these lables and based on what? And the questions never stop...

Tuesday, October 2, 2007


We live through labels. Not the ones on your jeans or t-shirts. But the ones through which we come to be known by others: she is an immigrant; he is Canadian. Labels are stuck on us. Labels give or deny rights. They follow us wherever we go, defining who we are supposed to be.

Canadian citizen
Permanent resident
Canadian resident
Temporary resident
Newcomer to Canada
Acclimatized Canadian (yeap, the term actually exists, google it!)
Naturalized Canadian

(Photo: everydaylifemodern)

Monday, October 1, 2007

Living with difference is like taking the bus

I travel with difference everyday:

- a girl with a hijab sat in front of me;
- white, black, red, yellow - name the skin-color label, was in the bus today;
- toddler, adolescent, grown-up, senior - all of them were in the bus with me;

- a woman in a wheelchair, also in front of me today.

We travel together by bus, but we never interact. Just like living in a multicultural society. Living with difference - we learned to tolerate, we no longer stare. But we keep our distance. We observe, but we don't dare to push the limits of our own labels.

Photo credits: qmonic.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Difference and hate-crimes

I had almost forgotten about the story of Matthew Shepard. When I was teaching diversity to journalism students, I used his story a lot when talking about hate speech/acts against sexual minorities precisely because it was so powerful. As I was browsing the net the other day, I came across a case study on the power of social networking through the internet in the case of Matthew's death, and was reminded of the story once again.

You see, this boy could have been any one of us. And that's what's so frightening about his story: born in 1976 and violently killed in 1998. The crime was motivated by the fact that Matthew was gay. The 22 years old political science college student was different from what was perceived as 'normal sexual behavior'. Why was this difference offending? Why it still is? What is it that makes some of us feel that someone else's sexuality infringes upon our own? Who defines what normal sexuality is and why we never question that definition for ourselves?

In his book The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault has argued that bourgeois society has transformed sex into something that can and should be controlled. Sexuality, a central part of our embodied existence, was enlisted into capitalist logic of production. Good sex is that aimed at producing new labor force. The moralization of sexuality, which resonated so strongly with Christian dogma, policed our own desires, bodies and behaviors. Forms of sexuality which do not lead to reproduction are stigmatized, since they are not "economically useful and politically conservative" (p. 37).

Easier said then done. I mean, Foucault might provide interesting answers, but how can these answers help us becoming less judgmental and more inclusive?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Change: from inside, from outside or both?

I proudly posted the quote of the month from Foucault's discussion of technologies of self. You can read it on the right hand side, but the basic idea is that changes in people come through the intellectual. Now, as I was browsing my colleague's thesis today, the first thing I saw was her own motto: change comes from within, from our own consciousness.

The first one seems patronizing, but I can remember of few instances in my life when I think it is true. Think of your own intellectual development and ask yourselves: was it purely my own work here? No author whom I read, no teacher who has taught me, no mentor who has guided me? But the second is equally applicable: who did the change? Did the teacher or the author operate the change in me like a surgeon working on my brain?

Maybe change comes with both of them. Maybe change comes with the example set by a person you respect, but it comes with the help of who you are so far. Which would mean that changing our way of perceiving difference starts with some basic activities of inquiring what we deem as different and why, but also with every little conversation or life experience that we have with difference.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

This is is not about difference, for a change.

Well, it is not, and yet it is. It's about a new book - The Shock Doctrine - which I am definitely gonna read. It's about the short youtube video linked below (again, a youtube video is worth a thousand words...) which talks of violence, whether state perpetrated or a natural disaster, and how human beings relate to it.

It could be about difference though, if you ask what is one of the main political techniques of mobilizing support in times of a crisis. The wise politician knows that people need a scapegoat - and they deliver it in the form of the marginal groups, who can be easily identified by their appearance. We always seem to need a scapegoat to make sense of crises.

The good thing about such works is that they are not bound by the academic rules. Just like Michael Moore's stuff, they are meant to puzzle you, to have an impact on you. And of course, that's also their bad part. If you really are critical, you cannot avoid asking yourself if these are not generalizations, based on partial evidence, stories constructed to present an argument meant to impress. Conspiracy theory. No answer here.

Link to book review in the New York Times

Monday, September 10, 2007

A YouTube movie is worth a thousand words...

A friend posted some cool short clips from Beijing. Sometimes, the only knowledge we have of something or someone comes from movies. It used to come from books, but with technology, perception and imagination changed. Now, the only problem with movies is that they are inescapably shaped by the collective imaginaries of the crew.

With Web 2.0 and applications such as YouTube, everyone can make a movie and share it. In theory, there will be a diversity of perspectives, turning old stereotypes obsolete. I thought about this while watching my friend's clips. The Beijing I know is a fuzzy mixture of images and words in my mind. Without knowing what I expected, I was still surprised by what I saw.

The surprise puzzled me. Why is it there? What did I expect to see? And why? Can we see something without any expectation? Are we white pages inscribed with meanings as we grow up, or are our minds born out of the meanings we come to learn?

Saturday, September 8, 2007

To exist is to differ?

Reading Latour, I came across this quote from sociologist Gabriel Tarde on difference:

"To exist is to differ; difference, in one sense, is the substantial side of things, what they have most in common and what makes them most different. One has to start from this difference and to abstain from trying to explain it [...]" (Tarde (1985/1999) Monadologie et sociologie: 73)

There's a point here which I take: to exist is to differ. That's true, we are all different. For Luhmann and system theorists, difference is the source of existence, as something comes into being by drawing boundaries around itself and, in this process of boundary-drawing, it sets the difference between what the system is and is not. My favorite example: a nation (pick one) comes into being not by virtue of historical necessity, but by delimiting itself along particular lines such as ethnicity, religion, language, territory. In this process of defining who the nation is, it sets the boundary separating it from who the nation is not.

But that's also not that obvious: why do we see the difference? To what extent our individualistic culture is not a source of seeing the difference, obsessing with it? Why are we different first and foremost, instead of similar (for instance, because we have one heart, one pair of lungs, one mouth and so on)?

I guess this comes down to the old constructivist debate: why do we see the tree as an individual unit and we do not see 'tree' as a whole, including the soil in which its roots are, the air which the leaves breathe etc. In other words, what is the principle of classification which informs our vision?
From this perspective, I have to side with Foucault and Skeggs (cited in last post): the principle of classification is always partial, always connected to a particular distribution of (access to) resources in society (sorry Latour, I guess I am not an ANT scholar). And I wonder to what extent our principle of classification is not difference as a source of mistrust and different moralities?

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Trained to see the difference

In one of the posts below, I was talking about how I was trained to recognize certain traits as valuable in a work of art. I'm reading Beverley Skeggs book about "Class, Self, Culture" and she put this thought I had in a very nice form:

"...differences (and inequalities) are produced, lived and read" (2004: 4).
Throughout our upbringing, we are taught to ascribe meaning to things. Eating food from the ground is yakky, later on it's just not healthy. Rap has no musicality in it. Having a mom and a dad is the balanced way of growing up. Sex means a woman and a man. And so on.

We rarely spend time thinking about the morality of such explanations, or perspectives, as Skeggs calls them. The underlying system of values which makes us label something as good/ bad, attractive/ disgusting is not given or universal. It is a social process, closely related to power relations in that society.

She says: look for what hierarchy the value you ascribe implies; look for how that hierarchy is connected to your position and your interests; look for how this moral hierarchy sets borders and thus produces differences as bad. I think I like these hints for understanding difference.

(Photo: by fotologic).

Friday, August 31, 2007

Difference in Web 2.0.

In the beginning, they said that on the internet nobody knows you are a dog. People were excited at the thought that you can be whomever you want on the internet. No more gender lines, no more racial lines, no more age lines, no more lines full stop. Sherry Turkle of MIT wrote a book entited "Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet" where she argued that with ITs, our identities become multiple (we can have an identity in each window we open) and thus fluid (since we are in multiple windows, there is no necessity for coherence or ridigity). She writes: "The Internet has become a significant social laboratory for experimenting with the constructions and reconstructions of self that characterize postmodern life. In its virtual reality, we self-fashion and self-create"

Once the hype faded away, people realized that their avatars look very much like their real-life personas. That they chat quite similarly to how they talk. And that their education, age, and even income, come across their online personas in many different ways. Check my avatar; if you've seen me, you will know what looks like me and what doesn't:

The internet may be a space where differences like race, ethnicity, age, gender and so on seem rather redundant. But the truth is that we are constructing the virtual space with the same social skills that contribute to the construction of our real-life society. Lines of power are reproduced online in the same way in which they are produce in real-life. I think it is the perfect space where the researcher can actually do research on how the difference is being constructed and enacted visually and textually.

Anyway, the point of the post: I came across this very interesting project called Global Kids. They do educational work in Second Life. Jame Paul Gee, a professor, came and talked to them, in Second Life, in the end of some avatar contest. It's interesting to see how the avatars and the discussion both confirm and contradict what I've just been writing so far. So, see for yourself the first (of a series of some 14) clip:

Friday, August 24, 2007

Patriarchy and Berthe Morisot

Just added a new blog (Flexible Knowledges) to my blogroll. One entry spoke to me about difference (well, i am blogging about it, ain't I?). The blogger was talking about her visit to a Berthe Morisot exhibition along with a male friend, who:

went from each of Morisot's oils on display, naming the (male) artist of whose work he found that painting "derivative." Thus: "Monet, Degas..." and so on.
flexible knowledges: I don't like the term derivative

Understandably, the blogger in cause was upset, for each work was traced back to one painted by a man. Now, you'd say, don't we do this in academic all the time, tracing whatever we produce back to their intellectual legacy? Yes, but in this particular case, the tracing was done along a gender line which implied that whatever the woman created is a mere derivative (as the blogger says) of an 'authentic' or 'original', man-made painting. In this sense, the difference here was constructed as one between the copy and the original, replicating a quite old, Christian vision of Eve derived from Adam's rib.

I still remember asking my teacher as a child as to why there aren't any women who created something original, something as big as a Mozart or a Renoir. She said: because somebody had to take care of the house and of the kids. But I realized that this is only part of the answer: it's also because I have been trained to recognize the genious of originality in men's work, while women's work didn't make it in the canon, except maybe marginally. I've been trained to see the difference between works in terms of the gender of the author. And to evaluate greatness or originality in terms of furious passion, roughness, directness, possession, aggressivity and the list could go on.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Back to religion. Or maybe Web 2.0? is (yet) another tool for sharing sites you find interesting with your friends - well, actually with the world. Being bored, I searched what websites people saved for the word 'difference'. Amidst the many technical links, one caught my eye: The Religion of Peace: Islam Making a True Difference in the World. The link has been saved by some 200 people, which seems quite a number. I click full of hope. But hope vanishes instantly: the first thing that greets me from the Religion of Peace (no link to hate-speech here, so do your own googling) is the photo of an injured child. And the title: "Islam, the Religion of Peace (and a big stack of dead bodies)".

I am on a news site dedicated to showing how islam kills and how its casualties are piling up!
I am no fan of any religion (see religion post), but confronted with the website I instinctively feel the need to argue in support of the right to your own faith. The website seems a Hate Speech 101: sweeping generalizations (islam=terrorism), offending irony (latest offerings from the religion of peace), the appearance of relying on scientific data (stats), the pretense of objective newsreporting, the use of strong, emotional characterizations in relation to islam (rape, murder, dead).

The site is an example of constructing the difference - a negative difference based on the idea of the Other defined by/through its faith. I remind myself that tolerance includes letting hate-speech being expressed too (or at least that's the liberal democratic argument and the idea of the First Amendment). But as technological capabilities evolve, giving us new venues to voice ideas in a more persuasive way, I feel a bit frustrated that teaching critical skills takes a lot of time and sweat, weakening our capacity as a society to restore peace (and keep such hate-speech in a position of marginality).

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Defining difference?

After the aggressive advertising campaign to make my blog known to the outter world, a friend told me "the issue of difference, on your blog, has not been properly introduced---it is just too vague, hanging there without a context, YOUR context" (ah, do I love the academics...)

Today's post is just about that: defining difference. My friend wrote:

"First. There are differences which are not fundamental-- all too superficial-- and those one should let the others worry about them. It may be more fruitful for your discussion to narrow down the differences which seem fundamental to you.

Second. It may be worth to probe into the source of someone's interest in difference. This concern with difference, obviously, can spring from various wells. On a most widespread scale, I would say, from negative feelings such as fear, jealousy, envy, "redneckness", ressentiment and so on. In very rare instances it can stem from strength, "objectivity," a sense of justice (as Nietzsche understood justice)---in a word, from positive and active attitudes."

These are good, valid points. But I'm coming from a qualitative tradition, one which asks not what difference is (the definition) but looks for the ways in which the definition might emerge out of trying to understand how difference is. I'm gonna let difference undefined, cause definitions belong to dictionaries. Everyday life makes and unmakes definitions.

The question of interest here is what difference counts as significant, and why? To quote from one of my favourite professors in this big small world, how is the boundary being drawn? And what is the relation between the drawing of this boundary and social structures, power, inequalities, choice and so on?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Living with difference in Vancouver

The thing I love most in Vancouver is that you can actually see and live difference in so many ways. Men holding hands in Stanley Park, women kissing on Davie Street, Asian/Caucasian couples, black/Asian couples, black/white couples, and so on, and so forth. It seems as if difference has been dealt with, accepted and metamorphosed into a way of life. The few who may be upset with it are no longer supported by a mass of followers. And the more one is brought up with accepting difference, the less difference matters.

Or at least that's what I like to believe. The truth is I have no clue what people truly think when they see difference on the streets of Vancouver. And the skeptic in me remembers that maybe people, concerned with their daily lives, do not care too much about difference. But Johan Galtung once said that peace is not only the absence of violence, but the capacity of self-restoration. Difference starts becoming an issue when something is at stake, when a threat needs to be rationalized (and thus controlled) and when when the scapegoats have to be brought to light for the catharsis (and that false sense of security) of the group. I wonder if the difference on the streets of Vancouver has grown to the point of Galtung's peace: would it have the self-restoration capacity if threats and demons would arrive to haunt it?

And then again, the difference I'm depicting here is misleading. It's closer to diversity, but concepts are like labels that grow narrow. I've seen the difference between Robson Street and the area around Chinatown/ Gastown; the difference between the fancy promenade and the scary ghetto. It's still difference, isn't it? And this one does seem to reproduce itself over and over again, irrespective of the time and place...

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Fearing the Other: Homelessness

Calgary is an baby-boomer among Canadian cities. Some 100 people are said to arrive daily in this oil’n’gas city, thus driving an exponential increase of population in an otherwise still rural city. Most people nowadays talk about criminality, growing insecurity and homelessness. Newspapers are already engaged in a campaign asking for tougher police intervention. And of course, local politicians have already incorporated the discourse of safety and security into their populist-driven agendas.

But beyond the rhetoric, it is true that as a city grows, so do criminality and insecurity. I do not know if there is a necessary causality here (I prefer to think not, because causality is a very tricky thing), but today I started noticing the homeless downtown. Not that I do not see them, but rather that this time I started looking at them with different eyes, held my bag closer and looked around to make sure the encounter could classify as safe. My friend added: “Did you hear about the homeless in Toronto who killed a tourist?” and we plunged into our the usual discussion about feeling safe in a big, growing city.

Reflecting on difference and living with it are two different things: the first is a cognitive endeavor, while the second is an embodied practice. As homelessness becomes associated with criminality, our previously 'tolerant' attitudes are changing. But it's not only about attitudes. It's also about our physical fears being awaken by the constant association of homelssness and criminality in various public spheres. We read about this, we see it on TV, we start talking about it with our friends and before you know it, our behavior and our explanations of this behavior have changed. This only shows, I think, how our understanding and embracing of difference is neither static, nor outside our contextual and contingent embodied existences.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Difference is in your dreadlocks?

I'm looking for interesting websites, and I run across this blog on race. It's not updated, but I still browse it, to see what people have been talking about. This one totally gets me:
White. People. Should. Not Wear. Dreads.
...It is not an expression of the unity of all mankind.
It is not getting back to the most natural state of things.
It is not any of these things, because you make them look dirty. You take it as an excuse not to bathe, as if there is no water in Africa, or Jamaica. You take it as an excuse to appropriate a culture you probably know next to nothing about, so you can look liberal, socially conscious, politically aware. You don't look liberal. You look stupid...

The post got 46 comments (while most of the others got some 7-10 comments). People reacted in various ways. But what puzzles me is how a particular way of understanding difference in relation to ethnicity/ race permeates this post. To each race, its hairstyle. When we see difference, we see it in racial terms. We see it in national terms. It is this juxtaposition of difference and race within the context of racism that I find simultaneously repugnant and dangerous. It may be the case that race has no meaning nowdays except in relation to racism, which - we need to be reminded - has not always been the case in human history.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Racism is a twisted thing

Well, it's not really a thing, rather a process. Anyway, it is twisted nonetheless. For some reason, people feel comfortable sharing their racism with me and expect that I'd share their views. Here are some random strings of racism which I have encoutered lately:

  • - I won't go to any Chinese doctors, cause they do not know anything and I do not understand what they are saying anyway
  • - Indians are so racist!
  • - Oh, those Pakistani used to sleep with their dirty dishes in the bed, didn't even took their clothes or shoes off.
  • - This is what happens when they (Native people in Canada) receive everything from the government. They do not have to work and all they do is get lazy and drink the money that the government gives them.
End of sample. What do these examples have in common? First, they all identify people first by their ethnic/ racial origin, and not by what defines them as persons. Second, they assume that just because you are thus placed into a race/ nationality, your traits/ skills/ behavior are now known. Third, they assume a distinction, a separation between me, the speaker, and them/ you, the other characterized by negative traits. This is the way in which difference is understood today.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Difference is in the taste buds

The material borders of our tolerance to difference come through our taste buds. Merleau Ponty wrote:

In so far as I have hands, feet, a body, I sustain around me intentions which are not dependent upon my decisions and which affect my surroundings in a way which I do not choose. (1962: 440)

My way of reading this paragraph is: my perceptions, my inner states, the acuity of my senses, all are intrisically connected to my upbringing in and experience of this world. This is not very far away from what Foucalt (I think) meant by saying that power shapes us on a biological level, by shaping our needs and desires.

Coming back to difference and taste buds: my taste buds tell me what is 'good' food and what is not. My taste buds hate hot food; my taste buds cannot feel the flavor of curry. Closely working with my tastebuds, my sense of smell labels certain spices or smells as 'yakky'. Eating in certain ethnic restaurants or certain ethnic foods doesn't work for me.

And this is where my taste buds set the border of my tolerance to difference: I might know that living in another part of the world would have resulted in me liking to eat different things. But this rationalization doesn't help when I feel disgusted by certain smells or tastes.

On the other hand, my nose hates the smell of wine (alchool) and my taste buds hate the taste, which has nothing to do with culture, ethnicity or my close social millieu, since my parents and my friends always drank wine. There's no 'ethnic' element here. So why in some cases we label other people's food as 'ethnic' and as such a matter of good/ bad food, and in other cases it's simply a matter of acuity of senses?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


I read an article in the newspaper about the elections in Turkey, where two voices were featured: a young, Westernized girl, who said that religion shouldn't dictate who she could be; and a young man saying he felt sorry for any woman who shows her skin cause she will go straight to hell.

There are differences which I can take, and differences which I cannot take. I can respect other people's religious choices, but the truth is I do it only out of an attempt to be politically correct. In all honesty, I think I have a hard time accepting religious people altogether, irrespective of their religion. Which is not to say that I cannot accept people's beliefs, but rather that religiosity scares me, simply because it involves an element of submission to a collective norm established according to exogenous rules, values and norms. How to deal with difference?
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