Sunday, March 29, 2015

Student Blog #9: Empathy as a Tool for Social Justice

A couple weeks ago, my peer Whitney Loerzel wrote an excellent blog on the importance of critical thinking as a tool for social justice. She states: “Critical thinking is not some meaningless intellectual exercise. On the contrary, there are numerous examples of individuals using critical thinking to create a better, more just world”. Critical thinking allows for creative thinking. In this blog, I wish to build on Whitney’s thoughts and suggest another creating thinking process, one that is retrospective in nature and expressed through empathy.

My thoughts on empathy as a tool for social justice have been lingering for some time, though I have not identified it as such until very recently. This identification was spurred by my recent conversations with peers and friends, both in Canada and Guatemala, concerning the pervasiveness of child marriages in that country. This topic recently came to my attention through a New York Times article written by Stephanie Sinclair entitled “Child, Bride, Mother”. In Guatemala, 53 percent of women age 20 to 24 are married before age 18, and 13 percent before age 15 (Sinclair). This norm, prevalent in more than 50 countries, strips young girls and women of many of their human rights, fuelling a cycle of social, economic and political oppression.

Conversations with my peers and friends in Canada on this topic have been interesting and insightful. Everyone acknowledged the gender injustices surrounding this prevalent norm but when the big question of “What can we do to change this?” was pressed, the most common response seemed to be: “I’m not sure, those are big issues. I am just happy to be living in Canada.” I have to admit, I shared the same feeling in that moment. However, my feelings soon shifted after talking with some of my female friends in Guatemala. This topic is very personal as many of their friends or families are part of this statistic. Patriarchy (“machismo”) manifests itself in many aspects of their daily lives and is a constant struggle. Accurate empathetic insight into their struggles re-engaged me as an individual which was followed by a sense of responsibility.

This example is not used to make claims of some people being more empathetic than others. Rather, it is to highlight the gap or distance between perspectives on social justice issues as a lived reality as opposed to a topic of conversation. This gap, I feel, disconnects us as humans and strips away important perspectives that have the potential to stimulate empathy.

I believe empathy has a critical role to play in creating positive social change. Cultivating empathy requires us to step outside of ourselves and experience the world through other perspectives, particularly those of the grassroots. This personal interaction requires us to not only think critically, but understand the needs and conditions of those around us- near and far. In brief, I believe that empathy fuels connection. Connection, in turn, builds solidarity that can lead to social change.  I encourage everyone to not only critically engage with social justice issues, but explore their own empathy as a tool for social justice.

-Rebecca Tatham

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Student Blog Post #8: Indigenous Knowledge, Culture and Building the Social Economy

This week in class I am leading discussion on Priscilla Settee’s, “Indigenous Perspectives on Building the Social Economy of Saskatchewan."

I am by no means an economist or a political scientist like many of my classmates, but I find Settee’s work incredibly compelling. Perhaps more compelling to me is her conviction to Indigenous values and their application today.

I come from the college of archaeology, a place where I regularly learn about Indigenous people’s culture and history. I genuinely love learning about the cultures of the first peoples that inhabited Saskatchewan and being part of their recovery and protection.

I am quite familiar with Saskatchewan’s 14000 year history of inhabitation and can inform you as to why a specific projectile point or tool is better than another. I hope to someday be employed by a field that protects  Indigenous people's material past from being destroyed by the hand of the multi-billion dollar pipeline projects.

Yet modern indigenous culture and the culture Settee argues for is completely foreign to me. There has been a disconnect in my mind because I associate the material remains I see with individuals from 4500 years ago and not the culture that lived on and exists today.

I must ask myself why? Is my privilege as a middle class white male unchecked? The short answer to this question is without even realizing it until putting myself and my own experience under the microscope: yes, it is.

I now consider this a great failure on my part as a student, a human being, and a citizen of this wonderfully multifaceted cultural landscape we known as Canada. As I enter my career I hope to remedy this situation and open pathways of access for Indigenous peoples into the archaeological process and share their history as equals. I believe a better understanding of Saskatchewan's history can genuinely be beneficial for all involved and begin a discourse that will bring our multicultural mosaic together as equals.

-Kevin Nyborg

Education and Pedagogy

Last week, students in INTS 400 Critical Perspectives on Social Justice and the Common Good had a fruitful discussion on the role of education, pedagogy and "how we learn" in modern universities.  The discussion originated in response to this article from conservative commentators Barbara Kay and Adam Daifallah.  I brought the article to class in order to ask the question that the article accused us of never asking: do universities teach students "what" to think rather than "how" to think? 

The discussion was impressive.  Students reflected on their experiences, discussed the broader state of education (including difficulty of access) and how students tailor their arguments to different academic situations.  

I was impressed with the high level of intellectual responses from the students.   After class a student sent me this poem which I found to quite adequately reflect how many students (including myself) felt as we were navigating our education.  Well done class! 

There is something I don't know
that I am supposed to know.
I don't know what it is I don't know
and yet am supposed to know,
and I feel I look stupid
if I seem both not to know it
and not know what it is I don't know.
Therefore, I pretend I know it.
This is nerve-racking
since I don't know what I must pretend to know.
Therefore I pretend to know everything.

I feel you know what I'm supposed to know
but you can't tell me what it is
because you don't know
that I don't know what it is.

You may know what I don't know,
but not that I don't know it,
and I can't tell you.
So you will
have to
tell me

R. D. Laing

Friday, March 20, 2015

Student Blog #7: The Importance of Critical Thinking

There was a recent news article that caught my attention and caused me some concern. This particular article was discussing a recent mail out that was sent to an MP’s constituents that contained information related to Bill C-51. A survey was included in which individuals were offered two options regarding their opinions on Bill C-51: they could either agree with the bill, as it is imperative to take additional action to protect Canadians from terrorism, or they must disagree with implementing Bill C-51 because, “terrorists are victims too.” I laughed to myself as I read it: what a blatant example of the fallacy of the false dilemma this argument is! The fallacy of the false dilemma (or false dichotomy) occurs when an individual presents only two opposing views when in fact other possibilities exist. In regard to Bill C-51, one might have perfectly valid reasons for not supporting this legislation, such as its impedance on privacy rights and civil liberties, which have nothing to do with sympathizing with terrorists. This example immediately brought back “fond” memories of Vic Toews who in 2012, used a false dichotomy when he told Canadians that they are either with Conservative government or, “with the child pornographers”, in regard to Bill C-30. I am sure many Canadians were delighted to be categorized as being “with the child pornographers,” simply because they opposed the content of Bill C-30.

As ridiculous as these two examples are, we may not realize that we encounter fallacious arguments on a regular basis. For example, how many times do we witness a straw person argument in our lives? A straw person argument (commonly called a “straw man” argument, but I am a feminist after all) is one that misrepresents your opponent’s position in a way that makes it easier to attack and refute. The ever-present red herring, the deliberate raising of an irrelevant issue, seems to be a staple in argumentative discourse. However, our discourse need not be mired in fallacies. Invalid arguments, although very easy to make, are also easy to detect with the right tools. Thus, the concept of critical thinking is necessary to eradicate such fallacious arguments.

Critical thinking is the process of assessing claims and arguments with rational, cognitive thought. A critical thinker does not accept unfounded claims and is familiar with common fallacies. I presented you with the fallacy of the false dilemma, the straw person, and red herring, but there are many others. There are the fallacies that contain irrelevant premises, such as the genetic fallacy, the fallacy of appealing to popularity, tradition, emotion, and so on. Other fallacies are those with unacceptable premises, like begging the question or deploying a faulty analogy. Critical thinking is also about embracing new knowledge through discovery, and is tremendously important when evaluating and forming opinions.

Why is critical thinking so imperative? Firstly, far too often fallacious arguments slip through the cracks and are deemed valid. It becomes dangerous when people of power use fallacies to win support and make policies. Without the power of critical thinking, individuals accept invalid claims and arguments that undermine truth. Secondly, there is a risk of basing one’s beliefs and opinions on biased, unsupported, and/or fallacious claims. What you stand for and whom you are depends on the kinds of knowledge that you deem to be valid and worthy of acceptance. If you do not think critically about the reasons for accepting claims, you risk allowing others to form your opinions and beliefs for you. Every day, individuals are bombarded with information. The media, through the advancement of technology, now permeates our lives so completely that it is nearly impossible to ignore. Social media is another entity that offers the user an abundance of information and opinions. With all this information streaming into our lives it is important to be able to assess what is valid and worthy of our attention.

I equate social justice and the common good with individuals making and accepting arguments grounded in evidence. A good and just society is one that seeks truth and turns away from claims that lack credible evidence. Critical thinking is the tool that separates truths from falsehoods. A just world requires a foundation of trust, and if claims and beliefs are based on invalid or inaccurate premises, how can the good or justice prevail? Relying on unfounded claims to form opinions most certainly hinders the common good.

Critical thinking is not some meaningless intellectual exercise. On the contrary, there are numerous examples of individuals using critical thinking to create a better, more just world. It has empowered women to no longer accept that they somehow are subordinate to men and thus should be afforded lesser rights. Thinking critically has also made clear that skin colour has no bearing on the value of a human life. In my own life, critical thinking has changed the way I look at and consume food.

I have been vegan for several years now and this choice, despite what so many people think, was one the easiest decisions of my life. I critically assessed the arguments that supported an animal-based diet against those that opposed consuming such a diet. After evaluating arguments, I came to the conclusion that the arguments made in favour of a vegan diet could not be ignored, such as the appalling treatment of animals, the damage to the environment, and the waste of resources that goes into livestock production that result from an animal-based diet. Critical thinking gave me the tools to discover that I could lead a perfectly healthy and enjoyable life foregoing any animal products, a decision that has greatly increased both my physical and emotional well being.

If more people thought critically about the world around them, I truly believe that positive change would ensue. If politicians, for example, could no longer rely on unfounded claims or the politics of fear to win support, and would be forced to convey concrete and factual claims to the public. Individuals would support their own arguments with logical, factual evidence and would accept nothing less from others. The media would be required to conduct and present truthful reporting. Most importantly, the world would be truth seeking, rather than retreating into falsehoods.

In order to be a critical thinker you must refuse to go through life in blissful ignorance, accepting unsupported claims and fallacious arguments. Critically engage with the world around you, and live with a passion for learning and a hunger for new knowledge. Take control of your own learning, don’t let someone do it for you; that is, know how to properly access facts and knowledge for yourself. Demand evidence and know when a valid argument is actually being made. Know the structure of a valid argument (that the premises support the conclusion), and when making an argument, always make sure you have sufficient and supportive evidence. Familiarize yourself with the basic fallacies and when evaluating claims for yourself always ask, “Is this a valid argument?” Whenever partaking of any information from the media be aware of any biases or conflicts of interests, and know what source your information is coming from (FOX News will provide a very different entertainment experience from BBC News).

The more I learn, the more I realize I know very little, as there is always so much more knowledge to acquire. A critical thinker never stops or fears learning. She or he is always prepared to embrace new territory, and move forward, rather than retreat into ignorance. It is important to examine your own life and challenge your own beliefs through a lens of critical thinking. Are your beliefs supported by evidence and truths?  Or, are you allowing falsehoods and fallacies to structure your life? A healthy amount of skepticism is often necessary when listening to opinions and arguments. Do not isolate yourself from different points of view; instead actively seek out opinions that are different from your own. If your views cannot stand up to criticism, then they were never strong enough to be held in the first place. Changing a strongly held belief is not a sign of defeat, but rather the mark of a truly open-minded critical thinker. Critical thinking, although a very simple act, has the power to change the kind of world we live in.

-Whitney Loerzel

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Bill C-51 and Human Rights

Yesterday, thousands of Canadians took to the streets in protest over Bill C-51: the Anti Terrorism Act.  You can see some pictures here.  You can read about the government of Canada's rationale for the Act here and a brief summary of the criticism here. The government claims that C51 is necessary to give security agencies more power to combat the threat of terrorism while civil liberties advocates argue that C51 could be used to crack down on legitimate protest.  What are your thoughts on the Bill and its relationship to social justice and the common good?  Will C51 make Canadians safer or will it undermine basic civil liberties across the country?

Friday, March 13, 2015

Student Blog #6: #KXL Why Now?

I recently read an article in the Huffington Post titled “Obama Declares Venezuela a Threat to U.S National Security” (Mason and Rampton 2015).  The United States is an oil-rich country that loves to take heavy oil (or crude oil, dirty oil, etc.) from a so called, ‘strong’ ally (if it ever was) and use it domestically. However, the U.S is the number one purchaser of crude oil from Venezuela.  Yet, if this failing relationship continues, a strain on imports from that country, no matter how unlikely, could happen.  This short introduction brings me to the main point of this article: America, finish building Keystone XL!

If you are reading this article I can assume that you have some knowledge on the debate surrounding KXL. But let’s quickly recap: The Keystone Pipeline has been planned for about six years now.  This multi-year debate on Keystone XL is actually just phase four of the project.  This project began in the early 2000s when I was just a little tot in school. Since then, oil prices have risen as the ‘War on Terror’ began and Canada’s (well Alberta’s) northern oil sands began to interest companies that needed to transport oil out to the Gulf Coast to ship it to China or another overseas country.  Phase one was approved under the Bush administration in 2008.  Phase two is also now complete. Phase three has been put into construction.  Phase one runs from Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska, Phase two runs from Steele City to Cushing, Oklahoma.  Phase three continues this down to Texas, where it branches off to two ports.  There is a heck of a lot that goes on between those places however.  Phase four is where the current controversy arises.

KXL would duplicate Phase one, however, with a shorter, more direct route and a wider pipeline.  This pipeline does not just carry Canadian oil. American crude oil would join the Canadian oil in Baker, Montana.  The main debate for anti-KXL activists would be that the pipeline is dangerously bad for the environment (along with other issues).  Supporters of KXL, including myself, argue that oil is an essential commodity to grow the world economy and that the pipeline is a safe way to move oil to refineries.  Furthermore, the pipeline would improve both countries politically, socially, economically and whatever other word you can think of that ends with ‘ly’.

The Sand Hills region in Nebraska presented a problem with environmental concerns.  KXL was originally planned to go right through this beautiful region, which also supplied eight states with clean drinking water.  TransCanada, a Calgary based company, immediately proposed fourteen different routes the pipeline could take, including one that completely avoided the Sand Hills region.  In November of 2011, the Nebraska Legislature passed two bills to allow TransCanada to alter the route.  A year earlier, in 2010, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a report stating that KXL would pose no real threat to the environment as long as all safety procedures are followed.  A few months following the TransCanada route change in Nebraska, TransCanada issued an environmental study stating that “based on extensive feedback from Nebraskans, this reflects our shared desire to minimize the disturbance of land and sensitive resources in the state” (Reuters 2012).

Now, I understand defending TransCanada’s claims with their own claim is problematic, however, the Federally regulated EPA’s report is clear.  The environmental risks are minimal.  However, the potential of an oil spill also looms large for anti- KXL activists.  A spill would obviously pollute the air and any water it contaminated, however, the main issue of water contamination was avoided when TransCanada re-routed the pipeline around Sandy Hills.  Moreover, as many scholars have suggested, if there was a leak around the “Ogallala Aquifer” (the Nebraska fresh water reserve), it would not be bad enough to penetrate the aquifer.  It is obvious that a spill into fresh water would take a lot of money and time to clean.  A spill would affect wildlife and agriculture in the area of the spill and that would be devastating for many ecosystems.
Yet, the argument that KXL could negatively affect these ecosystems is overstated.  Look, I completely understand that a pipeline is not going to save our environment.  However, it is not going to necessarily hurt it and that is my point.  There are already numerous pipelines that go East-West or North-South through and around the Sand Hills of Nebraska.  Although they are minor compared to the proposed size of KXL, they are still there moving oil daily.

Here is another fact to consider: we are all dependent on oil!  From the natural gas or coal power plants powering our homes, to the electric car you are thinking about buying or your stove at home, they all have one thing in common: they need oil.  A large portion of Canadian GDP is determined by how many barrels of oil are sold.  Provincial and Federal economies all, to some extent, rely on oil. Where does North America get that oil from? You guessed it, by train from Canada and developing countries around the world.

Well Mr. President, why not drastically eliminate your dependence on moving oil by train and approve this pipeline? If you google which is the safest way to move oil, pipeline beats rail every time.  There were over 1000 rail accidents last year in the U.S (over 100 deaths) and only eleven pipeline accidents.  The last human fatality due to pipeline accident was in 1988, my eldest sister had not yet been born (she is 25).  Pipelines are safe and it is as simple as that.  There are thousands of reports, articles, and essays to defend this point. Ideally, the Barack Obama administration would use the small economic gain from this pipeline to end some of their dependence on third world oil and maybe actually help develop those countries.

KXL would also create jobs.  This is a key point pro-KXL supporters bring up.  The U.S State Department released a report in 2012 stating that 40,000 jobs would be created during the construction of KXL.  Although most of them are not permanent, that is still 40,000 jobs America! The President, in 2013, publically stated that KXL would maybe produce “2,200 permanent jobs” (Reuters 2013).  The President clearly was not pleased with his State Departments findings, even still, isn’t 2,200 jobs better than zero?  This is an essential reason why public opinion polls all support the KXL in the U.S.  The Republican Party received a majority in the Senate in the 2014 fall election partially because of its support of KXL.  The Republican led Congress and Senate then passed KXL in January and sent it to the President for approval.  President Obama vetoed the bill just two weeks ago and the Congressional override did not produce its needed two thirds majority to support the project.

It is looking more and more unlikely that KXL will pass and this is problematic for both of our countries.  As Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer stated “the choice is to have it come down by a pipeline that he approves, or without his approval, it comes down on trains” (McCarthy 2013).  The U.S is already using Canadian oil, receiving millions of barrels of oil daily.  Much of that oil comes through pipeline and crude oil will be used no matter what, so it is our challenge to make it as safe as possible.

KXL would drastically improve both of our nations’ economies. It would bring more Canadian oil to the U.S, thus eliminating its dependence on third world countries.  KXL would produce more jobs for both countries and ultimately make the movement of heavy oil safer.  Those summary points, in my eyes, drastically improve our common good.  There is no liberal way out of this debate, either you agree with me, or you think KXL is dangerous.  To those against, I strongly encourage you to really think about this issue and why we depend on oil, or what good oil can do for our society. KXL would do wonders for the common good of both Canada and the United States.

-Wyatt Carleton
Twitter: @WACarl10

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Addressing inequality

Perhaps it is a measure of how far our society has moved away from addressing issues of inequality, but this week the International Monetary Fund released a report stating that declining unionization is fuelling income polarization in developed economies.  In their words:

"we find strong evidence that lower unionization is associated with an increase in top income shares in advanced economies during the period 1980–2010"

Union activists have been making this fairly obvious argument for decades. It is fascinating that the institution associated with neoliberal structural adjustment programs throughout the world is now recognizing that unions play an essential role in redistributing wealth.  What is your take?