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Archive for May, 2011

Ever since the Vancouver Slutwalk a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about why society is so quick to blame victims for being sexually assaulted. I suppose that many people would attribute the tendency to sexism, and probably they wouldn’t be wrong. But discussion usually ends with that diagnosis, so it still leaves me wondering why.

Logic, of course, has nothing to do with this assignment of blame. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence make clear over and over, that what a woman wears has no correlation to how likely she is endure catcalls or face assaults. Whether a woman is wearing a baggy sweat suit or a mini-skirt and stilettos just doesn’t seem to affect her safety; if clothing did make a difference, then a niqab would be a sensible outfit.

So why is the idea that the victim is to blame so much a part of our culture?

Part of the reason may be that our modern industrial culture usually assumes that women are responsible for all forms of sexuality. Just as women are the ones supposed to be responsible for contraception, so they are assumed to be responsible for being assaulted. The fact that power is at least as important as sex in sexual assault is simply ignored.

But the main reason, I suspect, is connected to the middle-class perception of autonomy. Given the degree of comfort in technological society, middle-class, urban North Americans generally assume that they have complete control of their lives. This assumption is strengthened by the fact that life is so comfortable in our suburbs that many of us are well into our third or fourth decade before we personally encounter serious injury or death. That is why the September 11th attacks were so devastating in the US, even on the other side of the country – people were used to assuming that such violence could never happen so close to home.

In this shielded world view (which affects almost all North Americans, because middle-class values are the ones that the media mostly depicts), the first tendency when faced with a crime is to wonder what you (or the victim) could have done to avoid it. Assuming that wearing different clothes or that walking in a different part of town could have avoided the crime is a way to preserve the belief in autonomy in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is often false.

Faced with the details of a sexual assault, assuming that certain actions can prevent them may be more comforting than the truth that these incidents are random and largely outside anyone’s control. And from there, it would only be a short step to blaming the victim for not following the practices that are supposed to ensure safety.

Never mind that these practices are as useful as carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot. Perhaps psychologically, what matters is not so much whether the precautions work, but that believing in them helps preserve the illusion of autonomy.

Perhaps that is why, too, the victims are ostracized. Just as people who have been seriously hurt or lost someone close often find that friends expect them to get over their problems quickly and will drift away if they don’t, so a victim is shunned because they are living witnesses to the fact that our self-autonomy doesn’t exist. Only those who have seen enough of the randomness of the world to understand it are likely to stand by a victim, because no one else can understand their experience – and because, secretly, everyone else is afraid to see the illusion for what it is.

In other words, what I am suggesting is that blaming the victim is not just a matter of callousness or stereotyping. For some people, the assumption may simply be hiding the fear that something similar might happen to them.

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Considering how much I dislike authority figures, I have had surprisingly little trouble with them in my working life. Maybe the fact that I am habitually polite in person helps – although it can also give rise to charges of hypocrisy if I criticize someone later in an article. Maybe, too, the fact my acts of subversion are usually covert has something to do with it, too. But whatever the reason, I only remember a single reprimand – and then it was without any intent on my part.

The incident happened when I was working for a small company that was being slowly ground under by its CEO. He was new and. while he was learning as he went along, he lacked the empathy to understand that repeated purges of the staff might have an effect on morale. I mention this background because worry among the top management might have been responsible for my reprimand.

At the time, I had the habit of entering small jokes into the screensaver banner – wry, mildly amusing one-liners of the sort you often see today on Facebook and Twitter. Most were so trivial that I no longer remember them. One might have been “Common sense isn’t,” and another (borrowed from Doonesbury), “It’s tough being pure. Especially in your underwear.” If I didn’t use either of these, the ones I did use were similarly innocuous.

So, too, I thought was the one that caused me trouble. It was a T-shirt slogan that I had first heard about at a Garnet Rogers concert: “Does anal-retentive have a hyphen?”

I changed the banner after a morning of editing a manual for publication when I reflected that I was lingering over changes that probably no one except me would ever notice or care about. To me, the expression was a comment about how overly-punctilious I was being and how close I was to losing my sense of proportion. I posted it, and went for lunch.

When I got back, the fourth highest executive in the company accosted me with a look so grim that I thought another company purge had come. Instead, with lips quivering with disapproval, he insisted that I take down the banner.

“Why?” I asked, genuinely puzzled.

The lip quivering increased. “I shouldn’t have to tell you. Some things are simply unacceptable in the work place.”

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that comment,” I said, secure in the knowledge that I had a consulting contract with a kill-clause. “What’s the problem?”

But finally, after the executive made a few vague efforts to talk around the issue without being specific, I relented. All I really understood was that he thought I had overstepped and that, more in sorrow than in anger, he had to correct my behavior.

“No big deal, if that makes you happy,” I said. “But you’re making a fuss over nothing.”

To this day, I am still not sure what he thought I was saying. I doubt that he was suggesting that I was making a comment on micro-management, because, if anything, the company management style was too remote.

The most likely possibility, since he was a fundamentalist Christian who had read little outside the Bible, was that he was unfamiliar with the term “anal-retentive” and jumped to the conclusion that the expression was obscene. Maybe he just felt that a phrase whose meaning he didn’t know should be deleted on principle.

But, whatever the reason, I not only felt that the matter was hardly worth bringing up, but that he had over-reacted. I had no point to make, and would have removed the comment at a simple request.

For a month after the incident, I had little to do with the executive. Technically, I was reporting to him, so matters might have been strained, but since his supervision consisted of approving the task list that I wrote for myself and collecting my time sheet so he could initial it before sending it off to payroll, the main difference was that we talked less.

Finally, he decided he had to discuss the matter with me. He claimed that he was the main reason I was hired as a consultant, and insisted that he had done the right thing, and expected me to agree.

However, I was in no mood to give him much satisfaction. “You over-stepped your authority,” I said, “But that’s in the past, so I’m willing to forget what happened.”

That wasn’t good enough for the executive. He tried to get me to apologize, but I simply continued to insist that we move on until he gave up.

We never did return to the relatively friendly relationship we had before. But, a few weeks later, I put in my notice, and the issue ceased to matter. Since then, I’ve thought more than once that the real sign of how anal-retentive I can be is that I’ve wondered occasionally since exactly what he thought was happening.

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Last week when I was in the Lattimer Gallery, I received my copy of the book for the 2010 Charity Bentwood Boxes. It’s a small but well-designed book, and it reminded me that I hadn’t blogged about the box I bought in the auction.

2010 was the fourth year of the auction, with the proceeds going to Vancouver Aboriginal Health. The concept is simple: James Michels makes and donates the boxes, which are decorated by Northwest Coast artists, and the boxes are sold in a silent auction. In 2010, $10,850 was raised – more than double the amount raised the year before.

Over the last couple of years, the decorating of the boxes has become increasingly competitive as artists try to outdo each with their concepts. In 2010, for example, Landon Gunn added copper moon faces to his box, and Jing painted his in a Chilkat design. Steve Smith made his box a rattle. Even more extravagantly, Ian Reid (Nusi) crowded his with Tibetan pray flags and images of the Buddha, while Rod Smith chopped up his box and reassembled it. Perhaps the most ingenious box was Clinton Work’s “The Shop Thief,” a little man with the box for a body and the lid for a hat surrounded by the tools he had stolen – a theme that proved especially popular with the artists. If anything, the competition to be original promises to be even fiercer next year, with some artists already planning their designs for 2011.

I bid on several boxes, but, as I expected, the bidding soon got out of hand (even if it was for a charity). In the end, I was pleased to bring home “Hawk,” by Haida artist Ernest Swanson, a traditional piece that many people overlooked.

Part of the reason “Hawk” was overlooked may have been that it was on the bottom shelf of the display case, so you had to get down on your hands and knees to see it properly. But a larger reason, I suspect, was that it was a traditional piece with none of the embellishments of the more extravagant designs. When I contacted him online, even Swanson sounded like he thought he should produced something more original.

For my part, I have no complaints. Although I own a number of contemporary Northwest Coast pieces, I appreciate a traditional piece, too. Moreover, despite the fact that Swanson is relatively young, he has a reputation for traditional design, and for several years he has been on my short list of artists whose work I wanted to buy some day. I was delighted to get a sample of his work for a reasonable price – a sentiment that may sound unsuitable to a charity event, but I would be less than honest if I didn’t state it.

Much of Swanson’s work seems to be jewelry, a medium in which he is rapidly reaching the stage where his prices are soon likely to take a big jump upwards. That makes “Hawk” a bit of an exception in his work.

Nonetheless, I appreciate the boldness of the design, which has relatively little variation in line thickness. At the same time, it manages to be a busy design, perhaps because of the relative lack of red as a secondary color – a design decision that is almost a necessity, since too much secondary red would be garish and overwhelming given the bright red lit.

I appreciate, too, how the fact that centering the face on corners makes the design seem abstract from most angles, with the pattern only becoming obvious as you turn the box.

“Hawk” is a piece that you have to study for a while to appreciate. It stands now on my dresser, holding spare keys (because I feel that such a practical a thing as a box should be used, so long as it is used respectfully), and I find that my appreciation has grown even greater over the months of seeing and using it.

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Advice from writers is always suspect. More often than not, the advice is only what the person giving it would do, and there are several alternatives that would work just as well. That means that would-be writers really need to read several pieces of advice on the same topic before deciding what the best approach for them might be.

All the same, a time arrives for many writers when they are moved to give advice. This is my time, and I can only hope that my experience teaching first year university students how to write helps to make my advice a little more universal than most such efforts.

At any rate, for better or worse, here are seven things that I wish someone had told me when I first started writing that I think are likely to be true for most writers:

  • Read widely: How else can you know what has been done and what people think is possible? (they may be wrong, of course). Genre writers in particular need to read outside their chosen genre if they want to do more than produce a mid-list book that will fit one of a publisher’s monthly slots then disappear forever.
  • Hard work is more reliable than inspiration or natural talent: Inspiration is wonderful when it hits, but, by definition it rarely does. Working regularly, regardless of inspiration, produces far more writing than inspiration. Writing, it turns out, is like anything else: The more you do it, the easier it becomes. That’s why so many people tell you to write daily. The same goes for natural talent, too: I have seen many writers and artists of all sorts who had natural talent fail to produce anything memorable and many initially less talented writers and artists who succeed through their determination to improve.
  • Structure is more important than style: Learning how to turn a clever phrase, or even a clever paragraph, is relatively easy. Most people can learn it in a matter of a few months. By contrast, understanding structure – what needs to be said, in what order – takes years before you gain even a basic competence. A large part of the problem is that it is hard to teach, and therefore is rarely taught. Another part of the problem is that the language to discuss it often doesn’t exist (film scripts sometimes come close, but there are things you do in writing that you can’t on film). Consequently, you need to study the structure of what you admire and loath by yourself. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize the need.
  • Writing and editing are two different functions: Writing is largely intuitive and unanalytical, while editing is logical and thoughtful. Both are needed to create a piece of writing, but trying to do both at the same time only makes both harder, because you are are always stopping and starting. Except when you realize that you are completely on the wrong track, try to relax your efforts at editing when you are writing, especially in the first draft. You’ll make the process much easier on yourself.
  • Don’t worry about style: Concentrate instead on writing as well as you can. Style is the by-product of effective writing, not an end in itself. Focus on expressing yourself as well as you can, and your style will soon emerge.
  • Only the anal-retentive obsess about grammar: A writer by definition should have a better than average knowledge of the language that they write in. However, that does not mean that they need to be experts in grammar. Grammar matters when you submit a manuscript, because you want to create the best first impression possible with an editor or agent. But, until then, worry about making what you write effective. Until then, obsessing about grammar is like worrying about the wrapping on a present, or the transitions in a slide show instead of the contents.
  • You can’t please everyone: No matter how good a writer you are, nothing you write will ever please everyone. Often, some people will love and hate your work for the same quality. The reason is that everyone brings expectations and experiences to writing that are beyond your control, and very few people can distinguish between what they like and what is well-written. If most people say the same thing about a piece of writing, then they are probably right, but if one or two say something, you’re just seeing the variety of reactions to your work

Almost certainly, there are more useful pieces of advice that I could give. However,these seven points are enough to start with. Understand them and make them part of your approach to writing, and you’ll be well on your way to being a professional writer. Chances are, too, that you will have saved yourself years of development.

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As I write, another Canadian federal election has come and gone. With it has gone the usual lamentations about the low voter turnout – just under 62%, this time around. Newspaper editorials have accused non-voters of being bad citizens. Radio announcers have called them irresponsible. Rick Mercer has compared young non-voters unfavorably to their counterparts in other countries who are fighting for their rights. Political leaders have frowned gravely and said that something must be done.

All of which sounds serious – and very much beside the point, because it does almost nothing to convince the average non-voter to cast a ballot. Despite all the concern expressed this past election, the voter turnout only increased by three percent this election, placing it well within the range of voter turnout for the last decade.

For one thing, I am not convinced that the problem actually exists as all the amateur and professional pundits define it. I can’t help but noting that the decline in voter turnout seems to have accelerated after 1997, when door to door enumeration for each election was eliminated as being too expensive. Possibly, part of what we are seeing is not apathy but the natural attrition as people move, change names, and otherwise fall through the bureaucratic cracks. Conscientious people, of course, might make sure that they are registered to vote, but it is far easier to register when officials come to your door than if you have to make a special trip or drop a form in the mail.

But even if the end of universal enumeration does not fully explain the decline, nagging people is not the most effective way to get them to do anything, even with the forced excitement of voter mobs. Nag nine out of ten people to do something and they will mutter incoherently and change the subject as soon as possible. Then they will go out and do exactly the opposite of what you urged.

The only way to get people to vote is to make them feel that they have a stake in the results. But that is hard to do in the current age, when people are easily kept informed but only have a say in policy every few years – and then only the indirect one of choosing who will lead them. And, in Canada, only one in 308 ridings actually votes for the Prime Minister, and only about twenty-five ridings vote for cabinet ministers (although, often, the votes don’t know that they have voted for a cabinet minister until several months after the election). The other ridings vote for back-benchers whose main job is to stand behind their leaders and look supportive. This is such a low level of involvement that it is easy to dismiss as irrelevant.

More importantly, the average politician is badly out of sync with the age. They have not caught up with the Internet, and continue to play politics in much the same way as they have been played for over a century. They haven’t fully realized, for example, how easily they can be caught out in a lie, or that their accountability is easy to check. Political parties may reject candidates who have embarrassing pictures on Facebook, but few have realized that they are subject to the same scrutiny. Consequently, they are often found wanting.

I don’t think it an accident, either, that voter turnout is lowest among those under thirty-five, and among minorities such as the First Nations. How can these groups believe that politicians can represent their interests when the average Member of Parliament is a middle-aged European ethnic? Especially when the average MP never talks about those interests, except perhaps to mouth a few noises of concern that are never followed by any action? A few years of empty promises, and you can be forgiven for thinking that an election doesn’t have much to do with you, and that voting is a waste of time.

If we as a society really wanted to increase the voter turnout, we need to make politics relevant. We need to insist on policies that attract the attention of those alienated from the mainstream, and that politicians actually listen to people and talk about what concerns them. But these courses of action are difficult to take, and sound dangerously left-wing. Instead, in the words of Gwynne Dyer talking about soldiers in the Nuclear Age, it is easier for politicians to keep the old game alive and pretend that nothing has changed in the last half century.

And if the problem of low voter turnouts is raised? Simple – just mouth a few platitudes and blame the non-voters themselves, and return as quickly as possible to business as usual.

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Last weekend, I had coffee with a woman I hadn’t seen in six months. Well, actually I had a milk shake and bagel, but you know what I mean: we were eating and drinking in a public place as an excuse to talk. She was unemployed, and the doubts she was having about herself demonstrated, very concretely, one of the reasons why feminism is still important.

This woman, you should understand, is someone who could only be called accomplished. When she was young, she not only traveled around the world by herself, but lived in the Middle East and Japan. She is a mainstay of one social advocacy group, and worked for poverty wages to set up another from scratch. At times, she assists a leading civic politician. Intelligent, occasionally rowdy, committed and well-read, she is very much the sort of person I would like to be like more often, but whose example I can only occasionally match (if that).

She was just back in town after three months away, and having trouble finding work. But, where a man would probably blame the economy and try harder, she was convincing herself that the fault was hers. She had been ousted from the group she set up by office politics, and had a reputation in some circles as overbearing and aggressive.

Having worked with her a couple of times, I am in the position to say that this reputation is in no way deserved. Yes, she is business-like when organization needs to be done. But she never gives needless orders, and the way that she always pitches in with whatever work needed doing is proof that she doesn’t let authority go to her head. If she were a man, you’d say she was a competent and efficient leader.

All the same, I know the gossip that circulates about her. More to the point, I know the type of people who spread the gossip. One that comes to mind (who probably isn’t the one you’re thinking of if you’re familiar with the situation I’m describing)  is a middle-aged man who compensates for living in his mother’s basement by trying to convince everyone how important he is. Another (who probably isn’t who you think, either) is a male geek with a soccer ball for a paunch who is always getting into arguments because nobody is as impressed with his views as he believes they should be.

Both are the sort of men who not only act as though they are single (even if they happen to be married), but give the impression of not having had a date in some time. They are men who are made profoundly uneasy by women, and feel threatened by any woman who does not value them at their own estimation, and who deals with them on her own terms.

Knowing those responsible for the woman’s reputation, I suggested that the problem was theirs, not hers. That was not just a bit of coffee shop philosophy, but literally true. The sort of men I describe are rarely in positions of influence – in fact, that is one of the reasons for their bitterness and for their envy of women who succeed.

But the woman I was talking to only said, “That would be easy to believe.” She went on to describe the difficulty of getting a recommendation from the group she had setup.

Realizing that I would not persuade her easily, I said no more on the subject, not even to mention that she was exaggerating the difficulties. Sometimes, people just want to articulate their worries, and don’t want to hear suggestions. As she went on to wonder if she had made the city unlivable for herself – obviously contemplating a move elsewhere – I realized that this was one of those times.

Inside, though, I was full of indignation on her behalf. Nearly forty years after feminism’s second wave began, this smart and independent woman was blaming herself – never mind that the only alternative was to conform and to hide her talents and kowtow to those whose only claim to superiority was their sex. How dare those petty-minded men take out their own insecurities in spiteful whispers against her? And how stupid are we as a culture, that we raise such obstacles against the capable, solely because they happen to be female?

For all the progress of the last few decades, the woman I was talking to, despite her abilities, had been so worn down by the gossip about her that she was assuming blame in exactly the stereotypical way that women are supposed to do. Nor is she the first capable women whom I have seen act in this way.

Often, of course, feminism is about helping the helpless, from the working mother who needs day care to the victim of abuse. However, it seems to me that feminism is also about enabling the talented, about making sure that talents aren’t crippled by an agony of frustration by the roles that women are still expected to play.

Yet, at that moment, all I could do was provide a sympathetic ear. And let me tell you, I didn’t feel like I was doing nearly enough.

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