In Pursuit of a Girl

We asked our obstetrician to write the sex of our 5-month-old fetus on a paper and place it in an envelope so that we could receive the news on our own terms; in an environment less mechanical, less foreign and more personal than that which we had presently found ourselves.

The location of choice was nothing to swoon over; a non-descript pub in the centre of town with just enough volume of background voices to provide privacy but not overtake the intimacy and concentration of the conversation. With a slightly unsettling trepidation it was decided that she would open the envelope.

Despite an ongoing internal negotiation with fate, which is entirely uncharacteristic of me in any other scenario imaginable, I looked on with the facial impression of a confident, appreciative and open minded father-to-be.

As the paper slipped out of the freshly torn envelope and the word that it had kept safe since that morning leapt up to the lips of my wife and then through the thick silent air to my overly attentive ears, I knew that the terms of my naïve negotiation had been rejected. “Boy” registered with discomfort and followed with a new, greater discomfort for having solipsistically felt its antecedent.

A smile is what it was worth. But smiles are like money; they hold different values and sometimes represent distinct currencies. This smile happened to be a currency from a long lost civilization, which had little use for a monetary system anyways.

The smile and its associated disappointment quickly faded away and was replaced with genuine optimism and wonder about what this boy would become; how he would look, what he would think, and what I would represent to him.

Over the coming months this excitement and anticipation for a baby girl would be beaten down, not forcefully but by necessity; the reality of a little baby boy impregnated and consumed all thoughts related to the topic of ‘we’re expecting’.

Looking back now, I’m thankful for this movement away from my desire to have a girl. Becoming a father has taught me that it couldn’t have happened any other way. You love what you’re given, and you love what you’re given with complete devotion and ineffable passion. There is no choice in this regard; this love is both innate and learned and it certainly is not dependent on girlness or boyness.

My son is now two years old; he is bold and charming and inquisitive and strange. None of the things I love about him are determined by his boyness. And I know the same would be true had he been a girl, if you’ll accept the contradiction.

So now that we are trying for a second child, why has this desire to have a girl returned? The answer I’ve struggled to arrive at for the last 30 minutes, if not the last two months, is that a girl presents an opportunity for me take on a new perspective of life….well at least to have a small, indirect taste of a new perspective.

As a man, I will never see the world through a woman’s eyes. With empathy and contemplation I can establish an impression, but the real thing – the qualia that together form the essence of the female identity – are beyond my reach. In fact, they are of a different world, one that is not fully interpretable by my male consciousness.

Although I might not qualify according to some, or even most, I like to think of myself as a feminist or at least behave as one would. I know that a baby girl would likely guide and strengthen my feminism, but this particular journey does not require her. It’s conceivable that a more uneven, arduous path, one of self- motivation and self-discovery, will provide an even greater payoff in this regard. This will be my consolation should that Y once again claim victory and should that disappointment creep back into my head again, say during one of those nightmarish revelations that two boys, working either collaboratively or in opposition, can cause more physical damage per pound than any of mother natures wildest inventions.

So I’ll continue to intensely will my x-chromosome carrying sperm to swim fast and take no prisoners. And I’ll continue to expect that the next paper that slides out of that plain white envelope does not meet the same unceremonious fate as the last. But should that one word, “boy”, once again bounce through my inner ear and travel north to my temporal lobes, I’ll forget my previous desires and expectations and dive head first with excitement and pride into the world of my two sons and all the joy, happiness and fulfillment they will bring me.

 

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Be Careful, Evolution is Behind You

There are places across the world where it is not safe to teach evolution or even to acknowledge it as a well-substantiated scientific theory. ISIS has recently banned the teaching of evolution in schools. This is not particularly surprising, as evolution is just one of many courses that they have annexed and tossed on an expanding and glowing-white knowledge pyre, including art, music, history and literature. If Iraqi schools had in fact taught evolution in their schools prior to ISIS, we could add this to a disturbingly large list of ways in which they are smothering the freedoms of those they rule over. Unfortunately, ISIS is not the soul progenitor of bad ideas.

While evolution is included in the high-school curricula of most Muslim countries, including Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia and Turkey, a 2007 study (Hameed, 2008) published in Science revealed that only 8% of Egyptians, 14% of Pakistanis, 16% of Indonesians and 22% of Turks agree that Darwin’s theory is probably or most certainly true. Similarly, a more recent 2014 Pew study found that in Pakistan only 30% of Muslims think humans have evolved, while this number rises slightly for Malaysian Muslims where 37% believe in evolution. According to the same study, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Turkey, the majority believes that humans and other living things have remained in their present form since the beginning of time (67%, 62%, 55% and 55%, respectively). Only four of the 22 Muslim countries surveyed, have more than 60% of the population believe that humans evolved. These are startling statistics, as there are few, if any, scientific theories that are supported by more evidence across multiple scientific domains.

These parts of the Muslim world are not the only populations afflicted with a blindness this opaque to evidence based thought. The U.S. has as deplorable a record as some of the countries mentioned above, in terms of its denial of evolution. According to a 2014 Gallup survey, only half of the American population believes that humans evolved; and of this half, most believe that God has guided the evolutionary process. Clearly, the fiercest obstacle to evolution education is religion. After all, a creator cannot create what naturally and blindly evolves.

So where does Canada fit into this conversation? We are a nation of diluted religious belief, as compared to the U.S. and most Muslim nations, and we posses a relatively strong record for scientific achievement and excellence. But while we may not compete with other countries in the arena of religious enthusiasm, we do indeed practice our own, less sophisticated version of this game.

We tend to think that in Canada we have moved beyond the turbulence generated by the slick yet sticky church and state issues that have galvanized debate in the U.S. Our doctors who perform abortions do not fear for their safety and our biology teachers do not struggle to keep the most fundamental pieces of science in their textbooks. This is comforting, but are we settling for better when we should be expecting something more? Has our proximity to the U.S. lowered the bar of expectation for Canadians when it comes to church and state?

Religion and politics in Canada often intersect. Just this year, the Supreme Court unanimously decided that it is unconstitutional for prayer to be recited at municipal council meetings. While this outcome is clearly a win for secularism and equality, any relief is eclipsed by the confusion over why this is an issue that requires the attention of the Supreme Court in the year 2015. And this is just one example; take a moment to google such things as ‘abortion and Canadian politics’ or ‘nativity scene and Canadian politics’ or ‘sex education and Canadian politics’ and you’ll quickly realize that if it is not religiously motivated politicians ruling with a cross in one hand and a clenched fist in the other, it’s groups of citizens attempting to motivate public policy with blindingly obvious religious intention.

Perhaps the most significant religious influence that to this point has largely acted below the radar is the way in which evolution is taught in Canadian schools. The Ontario teaching curriculum for high school students requires that evolution be taught but not as it relates to us, humans. So, students in Ontario learn about how lower animals, plants and fungi evolve but when it comes to themselves, their relatives, their friends and ancestors, they are left filling in the blanks themselves.

When I was a child, no more than 10 years old, I remember lying on my back in the moonlight of my backyard in suburban Ottawa lost in the buckshot of stars that filled my field of view. It’s cliché to say that this was profoundly numinous, but it was. How could I not wonder what was out there, where we came from, and what it all meant? The possibilities were chilling and open, and an answer the most cherished reward imaginable. As I grew older, my desire to learn the answers to these questions also grew, and the questions broadened in scope. While the daylight on my high school years grew thin, it was the topic of evolution that occupied my thoughts. In my final year of high school, in the thick of the science stream, which included advanced classes in biology, chemistry and physics, I found myself generally feeling content and inspired but also somewhat dismayed and wanting more.

At the centre of this discomfort was the frustration of not knowing now what I didn’t know then. The memory of my ten-year-old self was fresh in my mind, as were the questions that plagued the childish pre-sleep thoughts of a younger me. In many ways this child was a stranger to me. In a Camusian sense, I could imagine myself not crying at his funeral. However, what continued to bind me to this younger version of myself was the elusive answer to a most profound question – where did we come from? The tragedy here is that my use of “elusive” is not meant as hyperbole. Admittedly I was not an ambitious seventeen year old, or even a resourceful one, but eventually I did manage to locate a number of books at the local library to help me interpret the basic principles of evolutionary theory and how they are applied to the descent of man and woman. But without a teacher to cash out these ideas and challenge me to think beyond the book, I largely remained unarmed in any discussions on this topic.

The secondary school system can’t be everything to everybody, but shouldn’t it be obliged to share, if not teach, the answers to the most fundamental questions of our species’ approximately 200 thousand year existence – where do humans come from? A question that the most brilliant, creative and innovative minds, over millennia, have spent lifetimes contemplating not only to come up short but not even having the satisfaction of leaving the tee box. It is chilling to think that our children are not being provided this information 156 years after it was discovered by quite possibly the most celebrated and well known scientist of all time. And it is disturbing that we, the tax payer, sit back and dismiss this with a blind eye, holding weakly to the justification that “at least they’re teaching evolution in schools”. Of course, teaching the evolution of other species is important and can be just as interesting at times, but it’s as if the answers about our own species are being dangled in front of our children’s eyes, just out of view, as a taunt by sadistic bureaucrats. Actually, the sad truth is that there are no sadists behind the scenes; sad in the sense that this scenario could be more easily understood than its alternatives. I might be wrong in my claim that our proximity to the U.S. has lowered the bar of expectation when it comes to the teaching of evolution, but I am confident in my assertion that there are very few who care.

It is important to understand the motives behind the Province of Ontario’s omission of human evolution in their curriculum. A colleague of mine set out in search of a rationale for this decision and was shocked at the response he received. In a letter sent to the Ministry of Education he inquired why human evolution was not a mandatory element of the Ontario secondary school curriculum. A portion of the response provided by the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Branch was as follows:

“Ensuring that curriculum is inclusive in nature, addresses the education needs of all students, and reflects the diversity of the Ontario population is very important to our government. The Equity and Inclusive Education section (Section 1.4) in Ontario Schools: Kindergarten to Grade 12, Policy and Program Requirements for example describes a number of principles relating to values which should permeate the school and curriculum. The Statement on Equity and Inclusive Education describes the importance of staff and students demonstrating respect for diversity in school and the wider society. It is expected that teachers will plan units of study, develop a variety of teaching approaches, and select appropriate resources to address the curriculum expectations, taking into account the needs and abilities of the students in their classes. As well, learning activities should be designed to reflect diverse points of views and experiences.”

It’s difficult to know where to begin in identifying the problems with this response. There is reference to a number of weighty terms, such as diversity, equity, inclusiveness, values, and respect. But what is the point? Unless my inference abilities require serious calibration, the message in this response is that the reason that human evolution is not included in the Ontario curriculum is that it could be taken offensively by certain students, presumably those whose religious beliefs conflict with the scientific evidence. This is a dangerous admission by the Province. Not only does this promote an intimate entanglement of church and state, it creates a slippery slope whose surface is greased from the get-go. I wonder if the province would apply this same logic when considering whether they should include teaching the merits of western medicines when these interventions are incompatible with cultural or religious beliefs or practices. Here I point to the case of poor Makayla Sault, the 11-year old girl who refused chemotherapy for a very treatable form of leukemia at her own peril. The type of thinking invoked by the province in their decision to omit the teaching of human evolution is deplorable because it has sided with fiction over fact. If the role of the state is not to provide its citizens with factual information, I cannot fathom what it might be.

If you are left feeling distraught from this look at evolution at the provincial level, the recent federal record just might leave you kissing the floor. From 2008 to 2013, an ostensible evolution denier held the position of Minister of State for Science and Technology in Prime Minister Harper’s government. If you were not familiar with this storyline, you’d probably assume that Minister Gary Goodyear’s views on evolution were closeted during this time period. This is not the case. The story broke in March 2009, just five months into his five-year tenure as Minister of State for Science and Technology, following an interview with the Globe and Mail. When asked about his views on evolution, Mr. Goodyear replied, “I am a Christian, and I don’t think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate.” Denying evolution the qualification of being a well-established scientific theory says something about an individual; claiming that evolution is “about” religion adds a whole new dimension to what might be going on in that person’s head.

In an ill advised, and utterly peculiar, attempt at damage control, Mr. Goodyear clarified his view in a subsequent interview with CTV News by indicating that “we are evolving, every year, every decade. That’s a fact. Whether it’s to the intensity of the sun, whether it’s to, as a chiropractor, walking on cement versus anything else, whether it’s running shoes or high heels, of course, we are evolving to our environment.” As the sound of crickets fade out, we are left wondering what on earth is going on here. If this event were any less scandalous we could have taken great pleasure in dressing it up in glittery garb before pokeing it with a stick while onlookers whistled and jeered. Unfortunately this was not a spectacle; it deserved our attention, it deserved our harshest criticism and it deserved our voices as a well-informed public. It received none of these things.

It is not clear what Mr. Goodyear really thinks about evolution. While it is apparent that he does not really know what evolution is, it is conceivable that his aversion to the original question was more politically motivated than religiously motivated. After all, Mr. Goodyear’s riding is located in the middle of Christian Ontario. My two cents is that Mr. Goodyear was caught off guard on a topic he new little about, other than its long standing tensions with his religion and the religion of the majority of his constituents. A scenario that is almost equally disconcerting to one in which he denies the evidence.

I knew Mr. Goodyear around the time that the evolution debacle went down.  He was one of the kindest, gentlest and most principled people I have ever met. He had much going for him as a politician, but in the context he found himself placed, his Achilles’ heal was his scientific illiteracy. While this was evident from March of 2009, it followed him closely throughout his tenure and I expect played a role in his demotion to a smaller portfolio in the summer of 2013. Interestingly, his predecessor seemed equally illiterate in the language of science.

Now, I would be remiss if I failed to bring this back to the start of the circle, although it would be a challenge to avoid being struck by this unfortunate irony without any facilitation. Mr. Goodyear attended high school in the same federal riding that he represents today. While it is always easiest to attack the individual for their faults, it is often more meaningful to examine the root causes that have led to the individual’s belief or behavior. In this vein, we are left wondering to what extent the Province of Ontario should be held accountable in the unusual encounter between Mr. Goodyear and evolutionary theory. Should we not expect that students of Ontario schools grow up to show deference to religious doctrine on ideologically contentious issues, such as evolution, when the Province itself defers to this same principle when developing its secondary school curriculum?

I would be naïve to think that had Mr. Goodyear been taught about human evolution in school, his beliefs would have been altered by 180 degrees. I know as well as anyone that the development of the mind is not so easily molded. However, what is likely is that Mr. Goodyear would have been better positioned to understand the question he was asked and to know that his fragile attempt at retribution was in fact a hammer thrusting into the final nail in this particular coffin. Sadly, this metaphoric coffin exists in the minds of a minuscule proportion of the population; and therefore any culpability at the hands of the Province is lost to the wind. Here is the real tragedy of this story.

Feardom of Speech

If history has taught us anything it is that it repeats itself. Upon each reoccurrence we are given the opportunity to show future historians that this mundane irony was not lost on us. In 1644, John Milton wrote, “He who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.” This is the stuff of revolutions. This simple sentence delivers a potent reminder of the fundamental principle behind our dearest values; those familiar values that are embraced without relent and for which brave men and women will submit a life in its prime to protect – freedom of expression, freedom of thought and freedom of speech. Milton understood that without an avatar in which to embody thoughts and ideas, reason will cease to exist and its potential to influence is lost to the world. Milton’s sentiment here can and should be extended across all forms of expression: poetry, theatre, art, dance and yes, satirical cartoons.

In the days following the senseless and brutal slayings at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, media outlets across the globe released a number of images printed by Charlie Hebdo that are thought to have been the primary motivations of the Islamists behind the attacks. In Canada, a number of papers, including RadioCanada and the National Post, printed the satirical cartoons, however many did not. Of particular note is the CBC, who, in response to boat loads of negative feedback including from their national and international counterparts, aired a six-minute defense of their decision to opt out. David Studer, CBC’s Director of Journalistic Standards and Practices and spokesperson in this clip, articulated in a confident voice a four-pronged rationale. First, not depicting the prophet is a central tenet of Islam; second, Charlie Hebdo’s intention was to offend; third, the images do not need to be viewed to be understood; and fourth, it is not the CBC’s role to provide their listenership with opinions or feelings on the stories they report.

If the limb that Studer has straddled has not yet broken, it’s because listeners are willing to skate along this story’s surface with no interest in knowing how deep the ice is or what lies beneath. While it matters little to the broader picture, depicting the prophet is a contentious issue amongst Muslim scholars, and the reference in questions (which is found in the Hadith, not the Koran) relates specifically to fears of idolatry, not fears of ridicule. Clearly, the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo are not at risk of recruiting idolation amongst the Muslim community; an obvious contradiction therein lies. Similarly, protests appealing to blasphemy are equally impotent as these restrictions are only applicable to followers of the religion. On the issue of Charlie Hebdo’s intention, of course it is conceivable that inciting a rise within a subset of the Muslim community was to some unknown extent a motivation, however it is also possible that, like the majority of Hebdo’s satirical prints, the intent was to critique an ideology that has been subject to similar challenges for centuries across a multitude of forums and temporal contexts. There is no mystery in this; it is the mission of all forms of journalism.

Studer’s claim that the images in question do not need to be viewed to be understood brings to mind chilling parallels with totalitarianism. Thank you sir, but please allow me to decide for myself next time. And regardless of whether they are “needed” or not, they DO add value to the story the CBC has only partially reported on. With respect to the final element of Studer’s argument – that the CBC is not in the business of disseminating opinions or choosing sides – it is difficult to know where to begin, as this statement is infected with cowardice; so much so that its pestilence effectively distracts from even the most noblest of acts…. In particular, the one in question; solidarity.

As the events of Paris circulate across desks of journalists, intelligentsia, politicians, academics and the general public, they are dissected with the sharpest of instruments, and time after time it is ‘fear’ and ‘solidarity’ that resonate with the highest pitch. The CBC is adamant that their decision to opt out was not motivated by fear. And as an affront to their journalistic brethren by suffocating any spark of solidarity, they seek shelter in the shallow cover of “this is not our job.” This is not only contemptible to their profession and industry, it wreaks of a cowardice that might not be embedded in the thought of radical retribution, rather the economic reprisal of uncomplimentary ratings vis-à-vis a dismayed, if not agitated, liberal viewership.

As Bill Maher and Sam Harris have opined, there is a disconcerting tendency amongst liberals, of whom I myself affiliate, to prioritize the goal of not offending above all other liberal values. The argument goes as follows: if a subset of Muslims oppress and marginalize women, homosexuals and apostates, this is bad, but calling them out on it is worse as it smells of bigotry or xenophobia. It is likely that this sentiment derives from the unwritten rule that criticism of religion is off the table. This rule resides almost exclusively with the left and has its formation, I believe, in correlation. For example, it goes like this: the Muslim religion is associated with an identifiable group of people; criticizing an identifiable group of people is consistent with racism; therefore criticism of Islam is racist. There are many reasons why this is absurd; I hope I need not explain why. But it does seem to leave its mark within liberal circles.

While some have guided, if not formed, their feelings toward the Charlie Hebdo cartoons by the offence they convey, others have built their foundation on hate assumptions. In other words, many have labeled these cartoons as hateful. An important distinction must be drawn between satire and hate. Here is what we know: the cartoons printed by Charlie Hebdo were meant to be satirical. We don’t know the motivations behind the drawings. It is probably safe to assume that these images were not fuelled by hate, as we would not assume this for the hundreds of other topics Charlie Hebdo has satirized, including the other two Abrahamic religions.

Now, even if the cartoons were forged from hate, would this change our opinion on whether they should have been printed? In 1929, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, of the U.S. Supreme Court said “the principle of free thought is not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought we hate.” The expression of hate provides two benefits from its entrance into the public sphere: 1) it provides one with information about the beliefs of another; it enables one to know thy enemy; and 2) it ignites the embers of dialogue on what might be an important issue. This provides an opportunity to re-establish or strengthen the positions against the hateful rhetoric and place it on display for public scrutiny. So, while the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were almost certainly not fuelled by hate, had they been, the question of whether the printing of them should have been prevented remains “no.”

An unsettling number of people who have responded to these despicable events have thought it necessary to attach the caveat that they condemn all forms of hate speech, mockery and disrespect toward the Muslim community. Not only does this distract from the importance of free speech and the lengths some will go to dismantle it, it also employs a blindingly obvious false premise – satire of this kind is meant to direct criticism at an idea or ideology, not those that adhere to it.

The claim that the Charlie Hebdo images should be censored or withheld based on some misplaced attachment of hate or potential to offend is risible. One must be careful for what he wishes for; permitting such restrictions to trespass on one’s freedom of speech also risks one’s own religious freedoms to be trespassed on. In a scenario where hate is naïvely attributed to such things as cartoons, how then are we to deal with the bible, which includes literal and indisputable messages of hate, such as “Go up, my warriors, against the land of Merathaim and against the people of Pekod. Yes, march against Babylon, the land of rebels, a land that I will judge! Pursue, kill, and completely destroy them, as I have commanded you, says the Lord – Jeremiah 50:21-22.” Likewise, from the Quran “We will cast into the hearts of the unbelievers terror, for that they have associated with Allah that for which he sent down never authority; their lodging shall be the fire; evil is the lodging of the evildoers – 3:151. “ These are but two examples from books that are so replete with hate that if turned to the wrong page could be mistaken for writings of an Islamist martyr seeking god’s glory through acts of unthinkable violence.

The time is ripe to revisit our values; to dwell on them, if necessary. There is indeed much at stake in this conversation; progress is just one of them.