Straight Answers

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First of all:

This is to Macklemore’s song. I know little about Macklemore, on account of the incapable-of-following-popular-music stated above. But apparently in the song performed that was in support of gay rights etc, he also talks a lot about how he himself is straight.

Nobody really asks and nobody is really shocked to find out that I’m heterosexual because I don’t fit a stereotype, therefore I’m “normal” enough for my sexual orientation to not cross most people’s minds. Questions aren’t asked of me as they’re asked of others – although my singleness may come under more scrutiny than it would for a man – and that’s an example of my heteronormative privilege. When issues are of sexual orientation they aren’t about me. I don’t need to speak up on my own behalf, and the LGBT* people who do get to speak first.

A Sociological Case Study

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An event that happened at York University in Toronto recently has circulated the news and opinion pages. Most people have been essentially been saying the same things, but for reasons spread throughout a wide spectrum of spot on to hatefully wrong.

The basics of a story: a sociology course at York required group work. A student contacted the professor requesting that he not be placed in a group with women, because his religion forbade him from working in mixed-gender environments. (The sources I’ve read have not specified his religion; it’s largely irrelevant which one it is.)

Now, human rights legislation throughout Canada requires that people be accommodated in areas like housing, employment, services, and education if required by the basis of one of their protected statuses. This requirement to accommodate is a means of enforcing anti-discrimination, and protected statuses do include religion – but they also include sex or gender, which puts this situation as a balance between two protected groups. It’s very important to note that accommodation is only necessary up to the point of undue hardship, and the damages from discriminating against what would very likely be more than half the class, given gender distribution in higher education in general and the social sciences specifically, is a pretty undue hardship. This accommodation also has to be a genuine requirement for the person requesting it, and the person requesting it has to do their part in mitigating the need for accommodation through their own initiatives.

These are things a sociology professor would likely be familiar with, or other colleagues in the sociology department would have deeper knowledge to understand, evaluate, and explain the reasons this student’s request couldn’t be granted. The professor had a well-thought-out and thorough explanation examining the reasons this request was turned down and the rest of the department stood behind him. Consensus of sociologists is a pretty good sign that something is reasonable. The York University administration thought differently.

By this point the student already complied and worked with women, without much fuss after the professor discussed with him the reasons for this conclusion. But the administration decided that yes, students like this man must be accommodated in a gender-segregated work group. The professor in question speaks out about this, as do many colleagues and public commentators and many individual people who have read about this case.

The burden is on the student, as well, to demonstrate just how strictly according to his religion mixed gender education is forbidden. There are orthodox denominations of certain religions that still segregate genders in religious services and ceremonies, but whether this is extended to a work or school environment is up for debate. Complete segregation wouldn’t last, naturally, since procreation is fundamental to the survival of any society or culture. In no workplace would a rule stand that a man would be completely separated from women in carrying out his duties; even if physically separated by working at home or in a corner of the office out of sight of the nearest female colleague, he would still very likely encounter women through office communication or client interaction. There is just no practical way around this in the working world.

In the educational world, there are still gender-specific schools, or at least primary and secondary schools. I don’t know of any universities in Canada that still restrict student enrollment to one particular gender (and if there are, they would be coming across their own human rights issues with people of genders that don’t fit the outdated binary model), but if there were an all-male institution, a student should enroll there if he requires it. This institution would probably be religious anyway, and those who follow such a strict set of customs and beliefs would find many more problems with secular institutions anyway.

The student in this case understood all of this. He was smart and open minded enough to go to York University to begin with. York University administration is trying too hard to be open minded to fall into the void of senseless policy akin to that of Greendale Community College, and they’re damaging their reputation by not being very smart. This is a good test of the extent to which freedom and accommodation to practice freedoms can be granted. There are limitations to how society operates, to say nothing of the dehumanization that these restrictions imply. We have an economy that requires workers of all genders, and that requires education for all workers. In any private scenario – home life, choices in where to spend one’s time – a person can leave out whomever he or she wants on whatever basis. But in public life, please cooperate.

On the other end of things there is impending doom on human rights in Quebec, but that’s for another post…perhaps the next one.

The Need to Specify

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I’m starting to take note of how specific people get in describing people things, or which of the many applicable terms they choose to use. A coworker talks about her sister and her “common-law” – not adding husband/spouse/partner to that, or using any of the terms individually. It’s only the qualifier that’s used, even though that makes virtually no difference in present day reality both legally and culturally.

In conversation it’s much easier to say “husband” or “partner” – “spouse” may be a bit too formal or dismissive of any personal relationship to a brother-in-law as this case may be. Perhaps there’s still a sacredness to this coworker that she and her husband went through the process of ceremony and vows. She isn’t saying “common-law” dismissively – at least not on the surface – but they could mean very different things to her, and perhaps “partner” does as well.

That’s merely a choice out of many options, as there needs to be some way to describe people’s family status. What’s even more curious to me, and a deeper issue that clearly needs to be dug up and deconstructed, is when people use group qualifiers. Specifying that at a certain stop light it was an aboriginal man who offered to clean your windshield is really not necessary in most contexts. It’s a way of distancing oneself from the other characters in a story being told, differentiating the in-group from the out-group. Making one’s race the key to that description is prejudice that people perhaps know they have but don’t see as being wrong because, well, it wasn’t the man being aboriginal that made this story but rather that he was trying to make a buck off of standing at an intersection holding a squeegee.

(“Squeegee kid” was a common phrase about 10-15 years ago when this was an issue in public discussion, but from my recollection the stereotype was that of counter-culture young white people, in an area of town that isn’t poor.)

I don’t recall if “probably drunk” was also used in the squeegee story, but it’s been used in conversations before. Talking about a person and saying she or he is “probably drunk” is usually relevant, but adding an age or race or class qualifier to that as well speaks volumes about what people believe they have in common with their audience. The words people use to tell their own stories come from how they see it in their own minds, and how they interpreted it as it was happening. They’re a window into how they generally perceive the world. The qualifying words that are chosen expose the prejudices of the storyteller, and the tone and context establish how damaging those prejudices are.

In some conversations these qualifiers are important, or necessary. When awards shows nominate a diverse representation but the winners are the status quo, we need to talk about this in specific terms. When the context of one relationship needs to be specific to contrast with another, we need to keep on the same page with specific terms. But casual chit-chat is casual chit-chat. Specifics aren’t necessary, yet they’re used. They’re used with the assumption that the listener will understand the situation better in a context that includes these details, because it’s implicit in the hierarchy embedded in our minds. We’re carriers of systemic oppression, knowingly or not, and these unconscious habits of communication spread that around.

Our minds turn down in small talk. That’s just what it is. It exposes what we think but don’t think about – prejudices, insecurities, ignorance, habits, and assumptions. Like Tobias Fünke in Arrested Development, we should consider recording ourselves for a day and really thinking about how we phrase things…but perhaps, unlike Tobias, actually learn something from it. Tobias, you blowhard.

Exterminating the Koala Infestation

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Effective Sunday afternoon, the computer I’m writing this on will be decommissioned.

It’s seven years old. It would be nearly seven and a half years old, but its original incarnation went wonky within the six month warranty period and it was wiped clean in the early weeks of 2007. Its name is Koala Infestation. Naming computers after Mitch Hedberg jokes has been a tradition ever since my brother got a computer that looked like a cheese grater. The original incarnation was actually named Steamboat but I decided to change it when it came back to me wiped clean. Koala bears, why do you have to be so far away from me?

kitowerThe screen resolution is 1024×768 on a 15″ monitor. It runs on Windows XP. It lasted manifold longer than my previous computers, although perhaps that’s because I sparsely used it for a period of time when I got a functioning laptop and wasn’t often playing The Sims 2. You can tell I got it when I was in my mid-20s when I was still enthusiastic about t-shirts.

But it’s slow. The screen is small, and it’s not made for a bigger monitor. Its operating system is nearly obsolete. I’m a big girl now – not an underemployed fresh university graduate living in a shitty apartment. I live in an okay apartment now, across the street from the old shitty apartment, and I have a bit more education and a far less underemploying job.

It’s time. It’s time to back up all I have that’s important on here, then unplug the thing and take it apart. It’s time to wipe out this hard drive and take it out to pasture, perhaps to a place that can refurbish it for classrooms or nonprofits. Come Sunday night, it will be time for Coca Cola in a Glass Harmonica.

Does My Phone Make Me Less Moral?

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We all heard some version of the story that at the scene of some tragedy many people used their phones to take pictures before using them to call for help. I think the ubiquity of camera phones has pushed me to take less pictures because it’s no longer my unique personal gimmick to over-photograph everything. Maybe this would make me the one who sticks out and calls 911, I don’t know. Probably not, in fact, as it’s taken me quite the internal argument to justify calling the police when there’s screaming nearby and somebody’s being threatened, assuming someone else probably has. (Eventually I did it, because it should never be embarassing to be the second person to tell an emergency dispatcher that somebody might get hurt.)

Overexposure to tragedy isn’t a new subject, with the speed and formats of communication changing vastly over the past century or so, and happy to bring us footage from wars overseas for the masses to sit and absorb from the safety of their homes. We can read about civil strife in South Sudan, the seemingly endless struggle for Syrians to overthrow their government, shootings galore in the God-Blessed America, and just how much Israel is doing to its non-Israeli people. If this desensitizes us and wears away at our ability to empathize and care about the world, it’s been doing so for a long time.

This was previously restricted to home and places where news would be present…which was practically anywhere you wanted it to be. If there wasn’t a newspaper around or a radio on, there would be someone who read or heard. News networks are played throughout airports and even in restaurants and lounges where sports are typically played, if something major happens they will change it to the news. On September 11th there were TVs tuned into news channels throughout campus, wherever they could extend the cable connection.

There’s been plenty of time for this type of sensory overload with bombardments of tragic stories from halfway around the globe to affect the morality of people, to jade us into dark embittered souls. Having a phone handy that can get this information immediately anywhere is hardly a smidge further towards ubiquity, and anyone who wants to get away from overstimulation can. This is one of the least tempting things about having a phone.

When something is happening around us, though, the phone may make the difference between walking by and ignoring it and stopping to take a picture. Which is less moral? Not everyone in a densely crowded area will be calling emergency services or applying first aid. Some will hang around just to watch with their own eyes so they can tell other people or talk to the media when journalists get to the scene. Being able to spread photos of events as they’re happening is a step up in cashing in on being there when it happened and it may tempt more people to try.

I have yet to be in a situation in which my phone enables me to do bad things, or care less, than I ever did before getting a smart phone. The cynical ennui that’s observed in young people is no more than it has been in past generations, and it has nothing to do with something they have in their pocket. They’re just not happy to see you.

Does My Phone Make Me Less Active?

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It’s hard to answer this question when I was never particularly active to begin with. I’ve had many an excuse throughout my life that aren’t related to communication technology – health, size, gender, body issues, or the classic all-purpose giving up on what I’m not good at right away. All of my decisions to get more active over the years have been related to other things. The role my phone may play in this is how much more tolerable my long walks home from a previous job were because I could listen to music or podcasts along the way – if anything, making me more active.

That is, at least physically speaking. In other meanings of the word active – engaged, participating – it’s played a surprisingly large role in getting me out of my bubble and more involved in the world around me. When I showed up at a nearby coffee shop to join an open-invitation discussion group with strangers, I assured myself it didn’t matter if I chickened out or they didn’t show up or anything else, because I brought my phone with me, and I could sit and look like I was doing something instead of the embarassment of appearing to be stood up. I did not use that escape plan and I have somehow got myself way more involved than I should be (as I’m still lazy, through no fault of my phone) in my community.

And boy oh boy, has my phone made travel better for me. I haven’t travelled a lot lately, but when I have it’s been alone and with minimal use of public transit. I love walking, which as noted above my phone has helped encourage to a degree in my daily life, but I have a poor sense of direction and lack of confidence in my gut feeling. Having my phone on me to use Google Maps to see where I am related to where I want to be in other cities has made travelling alone an easy experience…except for the 35° heat, but I chose to deal with that anyway.