On Having Re-Read Garnet Angeconeb’s “Speaking My Truth: The Journey to Reconciliation”

Problematizer, philosopher, contrarian. Critic, cynic, shit-disturber. I think I’ve been a problematizer all my life, just not in every part of my life.

This post is not me trying to be an Opinion columnist. And it’s not me trying to be some do-gooder or, worse, some feel-gooder. This is from me about me, something I was prompted to write from having read about somebody else. It’s a step in a process. Read on, and take issue as you must or as you will.

On Having Re-Read Garnet Angeconeb’s “Speaking My Truth: The Journey to Reconciliation”

As far back as I can remember, Canada has told me that we embrace diversity. Not always using that word, but still that message.

Our various governments and politicians, our cultural day-to-day. Our jobs, our coursework. Campus life, news coverage, social media, friends around a table… continually, there it is, Canada telling me, telling all of us, how diverse and tolerant we are. For me, the word “diversity” became Canada’s overwhelming self-portrayal soon after the 9/11 terror attacks. But I remember the call as far back as Grade 1 class, an amenable time of life for anyone to be told such grand concepts.

We sat cross-legged around the front carpet as Mrs McCrae sounded out the word cosmopolitan on the chalkboard. This word, she told us, was what our Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, wanted for the country, for us: a mixture of people from all over the world, a good thing. That winter, 1977, Amanda’s Uncle Ron visited with footage of his trip through China – silent Super-8 images of crowded urban Shanghai, so drab and different from Vancouver, and the Great Wall, so mythic and unhurried. I remember we read Holling C. Holling’s marvellous book and sat wholly entranced not once but twice, a bunch of six year-olds, watching Bill Mason’s “Paddle to the Sea.” I can still hear the pops and scratches of the spliced soundtrack churning past the projector bulb, can still smell the chilly school building, which stands as ever just a few blocks away.

And I can still see Mrs McCrae tapping out the syllables with her chalk that day on the front carpet. Whether she gripped the class, I can’t say, though I knew we were listening. I was listening. I remember thinking and thinking about what she told us, thinking intensely, and when Trudeau was re-elected a year or so later, his name and face sounded it out for me, again and again: “Cos-mo-pol-i-tan.” Canada, for me, has quietly been cosmopolitan all my life because, when I was six, that’s what I was told.

Childhood experiences are momentous… their measure smaller, more intense, less diluted than an adult’s. Two years before, at our sunny backyard farewell, my pre-school teacher, Mrs Needham, gave me a goodbye card, green construction paper with a cheerful yellow lion glued to the front. Think Before You ActI sat in her arms when my turn came, and she read to me what she wrote: “Remember, Scott,” printed in big friendly letters, “to think before you act.” To say I never forgot, really, I always remembered. I remembered and did what she told me to do. I still have the card, bundled with the rest of my degrees and diplomas – the one that cost the least, time and money, perhaps worth most of all.

Primary lessons, intangibles, engrained so early. They can resurface, borne of reflection, yet years might pass before we notice them staring back from the mirror. When we’re children, we take our cues from adults, as we learn to become adults ourselves. My Dad coached my soccer team a few seasons. One evening, he said, “Hands up if you can think.” We dutifully raised our hands, and he told us, “If you can think, you can play.” Some nodded, some laughed. In fact, his point was to single out one particular boy, whose name is lost although I see his face so clearly, as a way to build his confidence. It’s something I only learned when my Dad told me years later. I’ve been coaching, myself, nearly thirty years now, and I still use this one: if you can think, you can play. I like its appeal, that basis of something commonly shared.

By the time I was an adult, whenever that happened, lessons like these were so engrained it took me years to notice them – and these just some influences I remember. How many I forget? That’s fair. Memories, influences, lessons… intangibles are borne of reflection. What took longer still was noticing their effect, or better to say having their effect pointed out to me, despite their staring back my whole life whenever I looked in the mirror. These days, I’m obliged to notice that who and what I am affects the way people treat me. I just took longer to feel obliged, and to notice that I noticed. I was blind to my self, really. But eventually… and I could list off a bunch of traits. It’s just that listing them seems a bit petty. There’s nothing petty about how I’ve been treated most of my life on account of who and what I am.

Once, long ago, I felt compelled to correct a customer who took our shared resemblance as a chance to share his bigotry. It was finally my girlfriend’s photo that told him we disagreed. Another time it was my daughter’s photo although this person assured me her comments weren’t about my daughter, specifically, just other people. Last spring, on my daughter’s field trip, the guide gave me the instructions instead of her teacher, who stood next to him. He’d just greeted her, shaken her hand. At the hospital, some of the nurses and specialists – not all of them, just some – spoke to me as though my Dad weren’t even in the room, even while answering the lucid, specific questions that he asked himself. At a restaurant, the smiling host walked right past our party planner and welcomed me with an outstretched hand, well over twenty feet away. I was holding the door open for our group to come inside.

Innocuous moments… hardly seem worth mentioning. No injuries, no threats. No danger. Yet also nothing trivial about somebody else reduced by a decision to single me out. Each time, I clarified. Told them different, set them straight. Other times, too, since then. And I only surmise what distinguished me as somehow different each time because no one ever actually said. On the other hand, I well understood what made me a punchline for howlie-jokes… party with the new in-laws, around the table, in the rec room, wherever it was. Once or twice I’d retort, but no no, they insisted, I was out of line. Just joking, they said. “All in fun, Shark Bait!” No offense, just some gentle family hazing.

Just… now there’s a versatile word. Maybe they were right. Maybe I just needed to learn how to smile. Years later, outside the Blue Mosque, made to feel especially white and tall and exceptional, I was more prepared, thanks to those (now ex-) jokester in-laws. Thanks, then, from an “out-law,” as that family liked to call us, we who married in. I’m better at it now, laughing and letting go. The stakes no longer feel so high. But I’ve had good fortune in life. Not that I mean to compare.

Where or why or how differences began encouraging us to neglect each other I don’t know. People warrant consideration. Dignity and respect for all is not a platitude. I can only speak for myself. Even in difficulty, my childhood was fortunate. I took a while to notice that who I am, what I am, affects the way I’m treated, or as I said before, I took a while to notice that I noticed. But I did. For years after, I kept to myself, thinking that nothing I had to offer could amount to what people knew better for themselves. Respect others by minding my own business.

I suppose I offered when it seemed constructive. But mine, as any life, was entirely simply mine, so I actively sought to respect everyone else’s autonomy to go it alone, just like I was doing. And surely they did go it alone, didn’t they, since that’s what I was doing… I became expert at minding my own business, and you should have, too – would have saved me years of road rage. Anyway, none of this was my decision to begin with, right? Tall, white, heterosexual, male, the petty list… offering an opinion about how to treat people, about anything, really, would not just look self-righteous, it would be self-righteous. Wouldn’t it? Respectful detachment, I thought. Respect people to be themselves. People are different, being themselves. Let them be. Respectful detachment.

Diversity. Diversity is Canada’s strength, after all. That’s what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been telling the world. He and I are the same age; I wonder if his teachers ever told him about being cosmopolitan. I figure his Dad must have done. Our greatest strength, says Trudeau the Lesser. Strong because of our differences. And, he warned, so easy to take for granted – that bit reminded me of when people say Canada is “historically a nation of Peacekeepers.” Not that the two messages relate, but just the presumption to think that every Canadian has ever known that we have ever known this all along. As for peacekeeping, I think the BNA Act preceded the UN by some 82 years, during which time Canada earned a reputation for fighting in both World Wars and dozens of armed conflicts prior to the 20th century. Although, granted, for much of that time, “Canada” wasn’t even a country yet. Are we squeamish over such history? p.s. in 2017, a Canadian sniper fired a record setting rifle shot, keeping the peace from 3.54km away. That sentence makes the sniper sound cowardly, but that’s not my intention. Irony is my intention, and Canadians are my target. So hey, why not just rewrite my sentence?

When the times are a-changin’, does that make us more informed, egalitarian, advanced, sophisticated, woke? I guess we’re just better now than we were back then. Or maybe we put ourselves at risk by misconstruing our memories and cherry-picking our history for judgments good and ill. I mean our judgments about history, by the way, not theirs when it wasn’t yet history. Big difference. Diverse, you might say. I’d say there’s a lot more to history than any one’s record of it. Historical records are just the bits that someone decided to keep, out of what someone could remember, out of what people felt was worth remembering that way, for the reason they want to remember it.

As surely as Canada has always been this nation of peacekeepers– p.p.s. if you’ve missed the irony, I’m saying we haven’t always been peacekeepers. I’m saying that we owe much to our military for their combat as much as their peacekeeping. I’m saying our trumpeting diversity is afforded time and space thanks to a lot of others who assertively provide for Canada’s stability. I’m saying the world is far more layered and interconnected and ironic in time and space than any lone one of us can account in any one moment. Anyway, as surely as the doubt cast upon “always this nation of peacekeepers,” have we also always been that nation of immigrants? As in, are we not colonists and settlers? That change to history’s now a-comin’, too, judged and rewritten every time we utter the words.

So who’s responsible for Canada’s history? I mean all of it, not just the recorded bits. Which people, or culture, or government, exactly, should we say has slowly come their ways to initiate change… change that respects dignity and culture, change that redresses abusive power and obtuse ignorance and acknowledges history? Whose decisions were they that have caused incalculable suffering to entire nations of people over a few centuries? Where’s the change that leaves less room to agree with platitudes like diversity being Canada’s greatest strength? Weigh that against change that gets our goods moving again, and our traffic, and jobs and our economy. Both matter, or is this just long-term / short-term? Rights and recognition vs. stable day-to-day? Driving change or punting the ball? These are different motives because they have different outcomes. Our priorities drive our politics. I don’t know what he thinks before he acts. But politics is a tangled web, and I suspect he would welcome that benefit to my doubt. Well, it’s a free country, right? We all have opinions. Diversity is a strength except when it isn’t.

This is but one moment. I’ve been prompted to look back at myself. It’s the history I know best. I’m compelled to think before I act because that’s what my teacher told me to do. Luckily, it’s also a lesson that seems wisely conceived, if not always exercised, like when emotions run high. As for cosmopolitan mixture, life alongside others without need for comparison or category– With every passing day, I still benefit in ways I will not even realise, thanks to the historical currency borne by that list of traits issued from a lottery of birth. But, since then, also thanks to snipers in far-away places. Thanks to a lot of things, really, way more than I can explain or know about. Maybe it’s easiest just to say I’m not alone, in my history or my present day-to-day or, so it would seem, in my future. I am not alone, and neither are you. Here we are, with each other, all of us. And all my respectful detachment… amounted to nothing, or may as well have. That could be disappointing, a life’s effort or, in fact, just perfectly Canadian, things in this country being so unresolved.

Something needs to happen, so I’ve begun by working with who and what’s been given to me. I encourage all to do the same.


The Bridge to Hell…

Peter Benson’s article, “Francis Fukuyama and the Perils of Identity,” in Philosophy Now (Issue 136), got me thinking again about multiculturalism. I’ve had plenty to say about multiculturalism – seldom positive – although none of it here on The Rhetorical Why.

If you haven’t yet leaped to conclusions about me, I’ll point out that the full title of this post is “The Bridge to Hell is Paved with Problematic Intention.” It’s meant to be a little satirical, a little disparaging. It’s a wordy mash-up of axioms, cultural and academic. I’m okay with wordy this time.

I’m also conscious of the juxtaposition of my crude title and the wisdom of Dr. King. I’m less okay with this but felt the contrast worth any shock, ambiguity, or misapprehension.

Read on, and take issue as you must or as you will.


The Bridge to Hell is Paved with Problematic Intention

Has the trumpeting of multiculturalism taken itself so literally that even individualism (… multipersonism?) is insufficient?

Taking itself, as I say, more literally, multiculturalism sets one culture at equal stature with the rest – seems fair enough – apparently, a shift in meaning from diversity to inclusion, which implies that diversity wasn’t working on account of exclusion.

So, within Culture X or Culture Y, as we might imagine an individual being equal alongside other members, we can imagine across the two cultures potential impasse: “… unresolvable conflicts between mutually exclusive viewpoints [that] dominate the political landscape” (Benson, 2020). I still grant here individual differences, but I have in mind some divide between distinct communities of individuals, i.e. a divide between cultures.

In relation to Culture Y, for example, Culture X might deem its equality mere lip-service and feel de facto unequal: “How are we in Culture X obliged to consider those in Culture Y as ‘equal’ if our culture is not equal to theirs?

Image by MetsikGarden from Pixabay
Image by MetsikGarden from Pixabay

“How can we treat them as equals, much less be treated as equals, if our larger culture is not equal – that is, if Culture Y does not accept us on equal terms?” Culture Y might declare all individuals equal to begin with and counter that Culture X only perceives inequality. Yet this simply compounds the same injustice for Culture X, who will hardly waive their due consideration.

In any case, equality of cultures seems not the same thing and unable to play out to the same effect as equality of individuals – even more so since an individual who identifies with more than one culture might feel strewn across their own intersections. (Curiously, this assumes one’s identity to be chosen as much as bestowed, which echoes individualism as much as collectivism.) In fact, if equating cultures equates individuals, then equality rests further upon equity, a mantle of justice issuing from a superior authority.

Perhaps Culture Y lives by some unproblematic axiom, such as ‘might makes right’, ‘stay the course’, or even just ‘common sense’ while Culture X lives by ‘power to the people’, ‘diversity is strength’, or ‘revolution is no dinner party’. Can they bridge their divide? Is one culture responsible to reach across, as it were, halfway? We might define an obligation to come any distance according to power of authority. To be sure, imbalanced authority does seem a constant throughout history; for exactly this reason, though, would we expect the side with authority to yield?

I turn to Dr. King. In his time, a generation or two before mine, Dr. King sought and fought for equality and “the cause of peace and brotherhood,” there surely being little more equal than “a single garment of destiny” (King, 1963). As we are all, he claimed, paradoxically yet beautifully this makes us one. Standing upon the authority of centuries, of historical proclamation and practice, and there resting in long studied philosophy and lived experiences of spiritual belief, Dr. King challenged his brothers to bear witness upon themselves. Such authority remains as stable for those to come as for those preceding – that is, unless or until those to come decide to rest authority someplace else.

Image by John Hain from Pixabay
Image by John Hain from Pixabay

In our time, justice supersedes civility, and restitution tinges redress. The zeitgeist these days is emotional, distinctly angry. Individuals possess rights, and cultures bear responsibilities. “The politics of identity,” Benson says, “multiply conflicts and divisions.” As we ostensibly advocate for the equality of all individuals, identity politics fights a culture war, a battle for equity across cultures-of-particular-individuals, which actually precludes a wider equity. Cultural equality has supplanted individual equality because, where there is axiomatic ‘strength in numbers’, multiculturalism can only ever be ‘us vs them’. If so, is it still defensible? Is multiculturalism a way to ensure that our outcomes match our aims? Or are the aims of those with authority forever destined to pre-empt the aims of those without it? Indeed, what is the way to ensure that no one of all will ever be marginalised?

For one final point I turn to Benson (2020), not in comparison to Dr. King but out of respect for all being one: “Only when we stop having identities in the group-defined sense can we return to being individuals” (original emphasis). We may discover too late the folly of burning a bridge-too-far while crossing it.

Washington, DC (March 2014) - Day 4 - 101

That’s Your Opinion In My Opinion…

Playing soccer recently, my team grew more and more frustrated by what we felt was poor refereeing, as in calls that favoured the other team or else faulted us incorrectly, which amounted to the same thing. Granted, we’re none of us professional, so the only thing at stake was the satisfaction of winning. But, as the saying goes, that’s why we play the gamenobody plays to lose. So, on that basis, our team was frustrated, and it mattered.

Players on both teams knew each other fairly well, so there was plenty of on-field bickering and sharing of opinions. Finally, someone from their team – let’s call him Michel – said, “Instead of complaining about it, why not just try your best to help the team?” It’s a pretty common attitude, on account of being positive and constructive. How many coaches have encouraged their teams to take up the responsibility of controlling what’s in their control? I know I have – more on that below.

As soon as Michel said this, one of our more heated players – let’s call him Roy – aimed an outstretched finger towards the referee and shouted back, “What’s the point!” What he meant, of course, was that when the rules aren’t being enforced, striving to help the team is futile since any gains are ultimately clawed back or nullified. “It’s easy,” Roy added, “to say ‘Don’t complain’ when you have the advantage!” Michel said nothing, and this actually became the end of all the back-and-forth. As it happened, the game ended shortly after that, with one team – ours – and one referee each leaving the field feeling hard done by.

vs Wesburn at Pt Grey Secondary (11-0 W) - 17

People often say that sport teaches great lessons about life, and again, as a coach, I know I’ve said this to teams that I’ve coached. Yet we say such things under the assumption that the referee’s interpretation of players’ actions, when held up against the Laws of the Game, will match our own interpretation and, indeed, will match everybody else’s interpretations as well. The further we depart from this assumption, the heavier Roy’s outburst weighs upon us because, sure enough, the more futile it becomes trying to play a game by what amounts to a fluctuating set of rules.

As I say, I coached my teams to take up responsibility for what’s under their control, but I was always careful to elaborate my reason why: be responsible to control what you can control because the rest is out of your control. The other team, the field conditions, the ball, the weather, the referee – because any of these variables could work against us, we need to focus on playing well, score a lot, and put the game out of reach. That means beat the opponent, beat the field conditions, beat the equipment, beat the sideline supporters, beat the weather, and beat the referee.

How all that translates to ‘real life’ lessons could be construed as anarchy, beating everything under the sun, at any cost, which is not where I’m going with this. So I’ll reiterate: the way to beat all these things is to play well according to the rules as we understand them and put the game out of reach on the basis of our skill and teamwork. That goes for the ref, too: put criticism to rest by beating all questions of integrity with skill and teamwork. (For often having referees working alone, it’s a wonder that youth & amateur sport have any refs at all.)

And, I realise, this does assume that everyone else involved, besides us, shares – to some degree – our understanding of the rules. And I think it’s probably reasonable to assume that we all generally know the rules, even if we don’t precisely share their exact meaning. For that reason, I think it’s fair to assume that usually players will see the same things when they apply the rules to game play. There’s even one further consideration here, put so well by Spokesman-Review columnist, Norman Chad: “If you’re watching the games for the officiating, you’re not watching the games anymore.” There are always debates and such, but we don’t usually get a referee as poor as my team (thought we) did this last time. And on those rare days when all seems to work out, we’re as like to say, “Geez, I hardly even noticed the referee today.” Win or lose, that’s nearly always a good day.

But that’s sport, and sport is a self-contained world of rules, bounded by a playing field – in that respect, all is stable and predictable. Leaving aside physical fitness and training, the constraints posed in sport are rule-based, i.e. arbitrary, and out of fairness, we agree as players to abide by them – otherwise, we’d not be players but cheaters. To be clear, none of us in this recent game felt our opponents were cheating; this was strictly a case of feeling the referee was misinterpreting game play.

Matchday #2: INTER (5) vs New Westminster (0) (Warren Pitch, UBC)
“One more eye and he’d be a cyclops…”

For all this, how can sport possibly teach us about life? Maybe we can infer the law of the land as the Laws of the Game, but in life, who’s the referee, by analogy?

At soccer practice, you might argue that the referee is the coach although I can say, for me, when I’m coaching I prefer to be coaching. That leaves the players to collectively referee themselves, which boils down past 1v1 to each sole player bearing their share of the burden. Especially during some small-sided training game with modified rules, the players must each become a partial referee or else the arguments begin. This becomes a responsibility to the team by the players for the Game, which rings something akin to that statement about government “of the people by the people for the people.” Curious that we live for the Game in the one instance and the people in the other – makes you wonder about analogies as much as analogies make you wonder.

So how about in day-to-day living? Is the government our referee? Are the police a referee? In certain aspects of life, we’ve built a playing field with specified boundaries – out in traffic, for instance, are red and green lights, and “Stop” and “Yield” signs. Are these referees, of a sort? For me, they’re actually not. In these instances, while driving a car, we might feel the need to stay safe and not injure ourselves or anyone else. Or maybe we just want to keep our insurance rates as low as possible. But where the lights and signs are mere reminders of the law, we might say the referee is you, the driver, making decisions that have your vehicle propelling and halting down every street.

But traffic is hardly the only example, and those kinds of boundaries are more pragmatic, anyway, for safety. Other aspects of life and living are more, well, open to debate. How about your boss, your teacher, or your parents? How about a total stranger? There are lots of examples, but I’m reminded of that adult on the playground who takes it upon themselves to be parent, guardian, and disciplinarian to every child in sight. For some kids, somebody they’ve never met can still be a very effective referee. For some adults, too. So just who is in charge of enforcing as compared to laying down the law?

One might argue that the best candidate for referee as you make your way through life is you. Hmm… right, well, if the referee in life is our own self-conscience, then just how free do we feel to make our own decisions? Some would say we remain entirely free, which I think explains Michel’s esteem for striving to help the team against the odds: work hard and live up to your responsibility to others, as well as to yourself. Make society a better place. But not everyone is either so bold or else so enabled.

Buried in there, though, is one more subtle layer beneath this so-called esteem, and it’s this subtlety that I would characterise as the referee, this weight of social expectation to live up to your responsibilities – and here comes the unspoken part – just like everyone else. There’s a collective demand upon us, one we all feel but that is neither felt nor heeded equally by all. It’s the concept captured by the word conscience, a sense not simply of what you or I believe is correct and right but of what others believe is correct and right. It’s peer pressure and the source of contention in Roy’s retort to Michel: it’s a lot easier to say ‘Do what I do’ when you have an advantage of some kind. That said, you don’t always find someone like Roy on the other end of things, so maybe not everyone is as prone as their neighbour to the pressure of peer referees. If everyone else jumped off a bridge, Roy would simply be a little more lonely.

For different people under similar circumstances, rules might be interpreted differently or applied unevenly. Unlike sport, though, where the referee is a third party who might still get things right or wrong, the various arbiters we encounter in day-to-day living – just as prone to error – might not be parties of the third order but the first order, i.e. our own self. That might at least be reconcilable. But when they’re a party of the second order, i.e. someone else, perhaps face-to-face, we might more likely face dispute, especially if there’s advantage to be gained, one party over the other, which is why sport needs referees in the first place. In life, if we’re all soccer players, we all share the burden to be the referee. But surely some bear more of that share than others.

Well done to those people. Without the referee, there’s no game for players to play.


True North Strong… but Free?

True North Strong… but Free?

The Dog's Bollocks.jpg




These are all descriptors I’ve encountered for Canada, from one source or another. I can make of each one something contextual. Yet as each suggests a departure or break from something previous, that’s really just a subtle way of saying, “Here’s what we aren’t.”

Yet describing something with negative terminology is ultimately meaningless because it can end up becoming silly; for instance, “I am not a giant Godzilla-like dragon that breaths fire and enjoys sipping my iced coffee on Tuesdays.” We could literally imagine anything that isn’t the case and say as much, and we’re no further ahead knowing what actually is the case.

So when I see descriptors like these – for Canada but really for anything – I’m unclear and confused about what to think. It’s a concern for me, the citizen, because who I am and what I value have direct effect on you and everyone else, and me in return all over again.

In the vaunted year 2015, according to Canada’s newly elected PM, Justin Trudeau, “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada.”

Ottawa-Toronto 2015 (Day 1) - 028
Canada’s Parliament Building

Ignoring the post-modern fallacy, i.e. nothing is true other than the statement that confirms nothing is true, this description of Canadian identity also falls in line with the negative terminology and serves as the on-ramp to the freeway of silliness upon which no Godzillas sip their Tuesday coffee.

And where the link above was an American take on our Prime Minister’s interpretation of whom he leads, others have taken noted concern of his statement, too, among them some Canadians whom he leads…

On the other hand, and perhaps in response (?), the Government of Canada is now apparently reversing course, telling Canadians and would-be Canadians something awfully more specific about Canadian identity:

I admit, once more, to losing track as a “Canadian,” although at least this time the terminology is positive: “We are indeed ‘this’ and ‘that.’”

Some pretty specific stuff in this Global Affairs guide. For example…

“When lining up in a public place, the bank for instance, Canadians require at least 14 inches of space…”

Right down to the inch? Granted, I’m not the most social-media savvy citizen you could find, but I think a colloquial Canadian response to this – at least on-line – might be “WTF!!!”

Ottawa-Toronto 2015 (Day 7) - 02
… anybody here still know that guy, Al Waxman?

Still, please don’t let me speak on your behalf. That said, the guide seems to have been compiled by one person in an interview format with a second person because it’s written with a first-person perspective: it’s uniquely Canadian, you might say.

Now, if your rejoinder is to excuse this guide as merely a helpful list of suggestions for what is “Canadian,” then I counter with the challenge to separate, in these suggestions, what are quintessential as compared to what are stereotypical descriptions. After all, what Canadian does NOT love beer and hockey and The Hip, just as they detest the gesturing of hands and public displays of affection?

Bowen Island Day Trip (Greycaps Pre-Season 2015-16) - 44
Beautiful British Columbia

We’re approaching another freeway on-ramp, this one a sloped and slippery freeway that circles and loops and arrives at no particular destination because at its terminus interminably works a construction crew, who build it out just a little further than before, apparently with no idea who they are, or what they do, or – perhaps worst of all – why they might want to reflect, with no small concern, upon the work they consider to be of national significance.

Seriously, am I the only one who’s concerned by this?



The Burden of Sacrifice

My students will recognize war correspondent, Ernie Pyle, and his accounts of World War II, including a series of three columns that describe with stark intimacy the aftermath of the Normandy invasion. This week, all three will be reprinted by members of the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Also well worth reading is this article from The New York Times, a tribute by David Chrisinger to Pyle, the man who told America the truth about D-Day, and the soldiers he commemorated, whose sacrifices in war leave us all indebted.

Controversy arose over whether or not to publish a photo of Ernie Pyle in death. In this article, a different war correspondent named Pyle, the late Richard Pyle, quotes Ernie Pyle biographer, James E. Tobin…

“It’s a striking and painful image, but Ernie Pyle wanted people to see and understand the sacrifices that soldiers had to make, so it’s fitting, in a way, that this photo of his own death… drives home the reality and the finality of that sacrifice.”

Indiana University has a great repository of Ernie Pyle’s wartime stories – click here to see them

In addition to soldiers, I would add, casualties of war include the child with no parent, the home with an empty room, the people with nowhere to live and nobody willing who is able to help them. Families might live in separation as a consequence of war. Civilians can be caught or placed into the path of chilling technology and lethal weaponry. People left alive find themselves rudely displaced and nakedly vulnerable. We have seen pride and duty elapse into jingoism, internment, and genocide. War is fought and casualties suffer in many different ways.

Our historical record is clear for its brutality and the dispensing of lives, and any disdain for the politics that incite war might well be justified. We have so much to answer for. Yet flatly shaming war as foolhardy or inhumane is simplistic. By the same turn, dismissing observances of war as banal or romanticised might overlook the personal roots that inspired them. How do we reconcile this? Pyle is clear: despite its cruelty, war is sometimes necessary.

And when it is unnecessary? Well, we have the liberty to have our say. But no matter our opinions or our politics, to live “in the joyousness of high spirits it is so easy for us to forget the dead.” Is this the imposthume of wealth and peace or the world of rights and freedoms? I can’t cover it all, or know every angle. For people like me, removed from war, what compels us into political debate differently than those facing imminent threat?

Beyond what I think of each war, anguish is real to those for whom war has meant sacrifice. Separate to written accounts, troubling memories are not easily and often never shared, but they are memories because those things really happened. Certainty of loss, uncertainty of fate: each is frightening, and both leave scars. Pain does not necessarily subside for no longer being inflicted. To disregard the sacrifices of war is to risk dishonoring, and nullifying, the people who made them, even as they might already be dead and gone.

Particularly on an anniversary such as this, we carry the cost of their service to us. Yet their sacrifices will never amount to nothing because the debt we owe is one we can never repay. For this reason, let us value and earn our debt. As the sacrifices of war are permanent, the onus for us to honour them is everlasting.

Ernie Pyle's Gravestone
Ernie Pyle’s gravestone, at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl Crater in Honolulu, HI

On July 23rd 2019, the Wright Museum of World War II hosted a symposium on D-Day – click here for more information

This post proved difficult to compose although, with reflection, I think the answer we need is somehow to be found in what we share, in our similarities, not our differences.

I May Be Wrong About This, But…

Before introducing the moral pairing of right and wrong to my students, I actually began with selfish and selfless because I believe morality has a subjective element, even in the context of religion, where we tend to decide for ourselves whether or not we believe or ascribe to a faith.

As I propose them, selfish and selfless are literal, more tangible, even quantifiable: there’s me, and there’s not me. For this reason, I conversely used right and wrong to discuss thinking and bias. For instance, we often discussed Hamlet’s invocation of thinking: “… there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (II, ii, 249-250). Good and bad, good and evil, right and wrong… while not exactly synonymous, these different pairings do play in the same ballpark. Still, as I often said to my students about synonyms, “If they meant the same thing, we’d use the same word.” So leaving good and bad to the pet dog, and good and evil to fairy tales, I presently consider the pairing of right and wrong, by which I mean morality, as a means to reconcile Hamlet’s declaration about thinking as some kind of moral authority.

My own thinking is that we have an innate sense of right and wrong, deriving in part from empathy, our capacity to stand in someone else’s shoes and identify with that perspective – look no further than storytelling itself. Being intrinsic and relative to others, empathy suggests an emotional response and opens the door to compassion, what we sometimes call the Golden Rule. Compassion, for Martha Nussbaum, is that means of “[hooking] our imaginations to the good of others… an invaluable way of extending our ethical awareness” (pp. 13-14). Of course, the better the storytelling, the sharper the hook, and the more we can relate; with more to go on, our capacity for empathy, i.e. our compassion, rises. Does that mean we actually will care more? Who knows! But I think the more we care about others, the more we tend to agree with them about life and living. If all this is so, broadly speaking, if our measure for right derives from empathy, then perhaps one measure for what is right is compassion.

And if we don’t care, or care less? After all, empathy’s no guarantee. We might just as reasonably expect to face from other people continued self-interest, deriving from “the more intense and ambivalent emotions of… personal life” (p. 14). Emotions have “history,” Nussbaum decides (p. 175), which we remember in our day-to-day encounters. They are, in general, multifaceted, neither a “special saintly distillation” of positive nor some “dark and selfish” litany of negative, to use the words of Robert Solomon (p. 4). In fact, Solomon claims that we’re not naturally selfish to begin with, and although I disagree with that, on its face, I might accept it with qualification: our relationships can supersede our selfishness when we decide to prioritise them. So if we accept that right and wrong are sensed not just individually but collectively, we might even anticipate where one could compel another to agree. Alongside compassion, then, to help measure right, perhaps coercion can help us to measure wrong: yes, we may care about other people, but if we care for some reason, maybe that’s why we agree with them, or assist them, or whatever. Yet maybe we’re just out to gain for ourselves. Whatever our motive, we treat other people accordingly, and it all gets variously deemed “right” or “wrong.”

I’m not suggesting morality is limited solely to the workings of compassion and coercion, but since I limited this discussion to right and wrong, I hope it’s helping illuminate why I had students begin first with what is selfish and selfless. That matters get “variously deemed,” as I’ve just put it, suggests that people seldom see any-and-all things so morally black and white as to conclude, “That is definitely wrong, and this is obviously right.” Sometimes, of course, but not all people always for all things. Everybody having an opinion – mine being mine, yours being yours, as the case may be – that’s still neither here nor there to the fact that every body has an opinion, mine being mine and yours being yours. On some things, we’ll agree while, on some things, we won’t.

At issue is the degree that I’m (un)able to make personal decisions about right and wrong, the degree that I might feel conspicuous, perhaps uneasy, even cornered or fearful – and wrong – as compared to feeling assured, supported, or proud, even sanctimonious – and right. Standing alone from the crowd can be, well… lonely. What’s more, having some innate sense of right and wrong doesn’t necessarily help me act, not if I feel alone, particularly not if I feel exposed. At that point, whether from peer pressure or social custom peering over my shoulder, the moral question about right and wrong can lapse into an ethical dilemma, the moral spectacle of my right confronted by some other right: would I steal a loaf of bread to feed my starving family? For me, morality is mediated (although not necessarily defined, as Hamlet suggests) by where one stands at that moment, by perspective, in which I include experience, education, relationships, and whatever values and beliefs one brings to the decisive moment. I’m implying what amounts to conscience as a personal measure for morality, but there’s that one more consideration that keeps intervening: community. Other people. Besides selfish me, everybody else. Selfless not me.

Since we stand so often as members of communities, we inevitably derive some values and beliefs from those pre-eminent opinions and long-standing traditions that comprise them. Yet I hardly mean to suggest that a shared culture of community is uniform – again, few matters are so black or white. Despite all that might be commonly held, individual beliefs comprising shared culture, if anything, are likely heterogeneous: it’s the proverbial family dinner table on election night. Even “shared” doesn’t rule out some differentiation. Conceivably, there could be as many opinions as people possessing them. What we understand as conscience, then, isn’t limited to what “I believe” because it still may not be so easy to disregard how-many-other opinions and traditions. Hence the need for discussion – to listen, and think – for mutual understanding, in order to determine right from wrong. Morality, in that sense, is concerted self-awareness plus empathy, the realised outcome of combined inner and outer influences, as we actively and intuitively adopt measures that compare how much we care about the things we face everyday.

Say we encounter someone enduring loss or pain. We still might conceivably halt our sympathies before falling too deeply into them: Don’t get too involved, you might tell yourself, you’ve got plenty of your own to deal with. Maybe cold reason deserves a reputation for callusing our decision-making, but evidently, empathy does not preclude our capacity to reason with self. On the other hand, as inconsistent as it might seem, one could not function or decide much of anything, individually, without empathy because, without it, we would have no measure. As we seem able to reason past our own feelings, we also wrestle echoing pangs of conscience that tug from the other side, which sometimes we call compassion or, other times, a guilt trip. Whatever to call it, clearly we hardly live like hermits, devoid of human contact and its resultant emotions. Right and wrong, in that respect, are socially individually determined.

One more example… there’s this argument that we’re desensitized by movies, video games, the TV news cycle, and so forth. For how-many-people, news coverage of a war-torn city warrants hardly more than the glance at the weather report that follows. In fact, for how-many-people, the weather matters more. Does this detachment arise from watching things once-removed, two-dimensionally, on a viewscreen? Surely, attitudes would be different if, instead of rain, it were shells and bombs falling on our heads from above. Is it no surprise, then, as easily as we’re shocked or distressed by the immediacy of witnessing a car accident on the way to our favourite restaurant, that fifteen minutes later we might conceivably feel more annoyed that there’s no parking? Or that, fifteen minutes later again, engrossed by a menu of appetizers and entrees and desserts, we’re exasperated because they’re out of fresh calamari. Are right and wrong more individually than socially determined? Have we just become adept at prioritising them, even diverting them, by whatever is immediately critical to individual well-being? That victim of the car accident isn’t nearly as worried about missing their dinner reservation.

Somewhat aside from all this, but not really… I partially accept the idea that we can’t control what happens, we can only control our response. By “partially” I mean that, given time, yes, we learn to reflect, plan, act, and keep calm carrying on like the greatest of t-shirts. After a while, we grow more accustomed to challenges and learn to cope. But sometimes what we encounter is so sudden, or unexpected, or shocking that we can’t contain a visceral response, no matter how accustomed or disciplined we may be. However, there is a way to take Hamlet’s remark about “thinking” that upends this entire meditation, as if to say our reaction was predisposed, even premeditated, like having a crystal ball that foresees the upcoming shock. Then we could prepare ourselves, rationalise, and control not what happens but our response to it while simply awaiting the playing-out of events.

Is Solomon wise to claim that we aren’t essentially or naturally selfish? Maybe he just travelled in kinder, gentler circles – certainly, he was greatly admired. Alas, though, poor Hamlet… troubled by jealousy, troubled by conscience, troubled by ignorance or by knowledge, troubled by anger and death. Troubled by love and honesty, troubled by trust. Troubled by religion, philosophy, troubled by existence itself. Is there a more selfish character in literature? He’s definitely more selfish than me! Or maybe… maybe Hamlet’s right, after all, and it really is all just how you look at things: good or bad, it’s really just a state of mind. For my part, I just can’t shake the sense that Solomon’s wrong about our innate selfishness, and for that, I guess I’m my own best example. So, for being unable to accept his claim, well, I guess that one’s on me.

A Kind of Certainty: V. Fleeting Uncertainty

Click here to read Pt IV. A Kind of Faith


A Kind of Certainty

5. Fleeting Uncertainty

Like a vast sea of experience is all that we know and learn and encounter every single day. We are but tiny ships bobbing and rolling upon its waves, its currents steering us here and there. How on earth do we discern and decide what we value, what we believe, in order to collaborate with others in meaningful curricular relationships? (I almost wish I could just be waylaid by pirates, or something.) For me, one way to decide is to consider our shared motives, and find incentives to collaborate from there. Notwithstanding the degree to which people are educated, or by whom, everybody has motives.

But we do not all necessarily have a particular destination or a future port-of-call. So the aim for curriculum appears to be that of shaping motives to coincide with the current state of affairs such that, in a broad sense, people can (a) function – a measure of the self-ful[1] – and then (b) contribute – a measure of the selfless. Upon this vast sea, we are not so much bound for any one destination as we are bound to assist each other, each underway to wherever best suits our particular circumstances at that time – yours for you, and mine for me – and let the tangents direct us as they will.

Education, I have come to learn, is learning to have more than a destination or purpose of my own. It is to convoy with others and have faith that they do the same for others and for me, and putting in to decidedly worthwhile ports-of-call on the way. On the way, we chart our courses, but as similar as the ocean might look any given moment, wave after rolling wave, no two moments are ever exactly alike. To that degree, everyone must chart on their own. How intentionally we aid each other, how much or how little we trust, how sincerely we navigate, it is our shared curricula that will determine how effectively we undertake any particular decision we are ever likely to face, alongside whomever we find ourselves. The more we convoy in earnest, the safer we will be. With that kind of support, what is it that would sink us?

One final cautionary note: if and when some finally do make landfall somewhere, with certainty to their decision, we must acknowledge that their perspective will shift dramatically from those others who remain, however more or less certain to remain, at sea. Not everyone wants to remain at sea, and such variances our curricula are obliged to accommodate, if not fully comprehend or appreciate. There on that solid shore might be a tighter homogeneous culture that yields a more one-sided – or dogmatic? prejudiced? – communal certainty all its own. On that shore we might find a trade-off that sets the communal trustworthiness of the bobbing convoy against the stable individual footing of landfall. Yet somehow we all must sustain what we share, no matter the differences that may arise between sailor and landlubber – and why?

Because what remains the same amongst us – indeed, that which makes us who and what we are – is what we have in common. Common to all of us is being alive, being a person, being a human being, someone deserving of a basic respect for human dignity. Each of us, all of us, every one of us. We are all people. In this regard, really all that differs between us is where we are, and when. For people to think in any way differently than this about other people is narrow, delusional, perhaps cruel, and flat-out wrong. That may hardly feel a satisfactory closing, maybe even anti-climactic, but who ever said learning was meant to be entertainment?[2] Learning’s the thing wherein we catch the conscience of each other.


Click here for the Bibliography

Click here to read Pt I. An Uncertain Faith



[1] Forgive the invention, “self-ful.” I hesitated to use “selfish,” which tends to connote self-seeking and self-aggrandizing behaviour (in that colloquial sense of “No, you can’t have any of my ice cream”), and taking inspiration from the Bard, I just made up a word of my own. Likewise, I do not use “selfless” in some altruistic way so much as simply to counter “self-ful”; as a pair, I intend them to signify simply the notion of there being, for each of us, an intrinsic “me” and plenty of extrinsic “not me’s.” Further, with my students, I would liken self-fulness to each one’s academic efforts and scholarship, and selflessness to voluntary service and community stewardship of whatever kind. The longer-term idea was teaching students to balance these as required by kairos, by circumstance – an appropriate time for each, and the wisdom to know the difference.

[2] Or maybe, just maybe, there’s a curricular role for those gnarly amphibious surfers, after all.

Hawai'i Summer 2008
Teacher at work: catch a wave to catch the conscience?