Friday 9 October 2015

SMARTS Update: About Those Barbaric Cultural Practices

I never imagined that this Canadian federal election might turn on barbaric cultural practices and/or women who cover their faces with shmattas.  At first, I was sure it would be about BillC-51. I had been following Edward Snowden’s revelations, via the Intercept, on how the Five Eyes alliance can intercept my cross border calls and read my emails and store this data for years (though why they would want to is beyond me). Yet with Bill C-51 the government gave itself even more power to snoop and to share my private information among many more of its departments--without oversight. C-51 also granted federal court judges the power to authorize the police to trample on my constitutional rights. If C-51 failed to raise anybody else's blood pressure, then I thought the Duffy bribery trial would be sufficient. It would show how the Prime Minister and his staff sought to control pretty much everything going on in the chamber of sober second thought, contrary to the Constitution. The current government is apparently not too keen on the Constitution. But then I remembered what the ever-wise Bill Clinton had to say about elections.  They’re about "the economy, stupid.” So I waited for the economy to take center stage.

And look what happened. Face coverings suddenly became more important than bread and butter.  Why? This election is taking place on the heels of a recession brought on by a plunge in oil prices that the government should have foreseen. Then there’s the generation-destroying high youth unemployment rates, and the fact that 40% of the workforce in the vote rich GTA is precariously employed. What about the secret TPP negotiations during which thousands of our auto sector manufacturing jobs were traded away for expanded sales of canola and lumber? Did we not decide long ago that we should be more than hewers of wood and drawers of water?

Yet I realize now that I should have seen the shmatta business coming way back in June when the government passed the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural PracticesAct. After all, researching SMARTS taught me the vital role culture plays in shaping everything we do, especially politics.

SMARTS delves into the nature of intelligence and who displays it. For millennia, we humans defined intelligence as a solely human characteristic. Only humans are flexible, only humans plan, conspire, invent, is what we told ourselves. But about thirty years ago, this hoary orthodoxy began to crumble under an onslaught of new science.  It turns out intelligence is not just a property of individuals who must make smart choices to survive: it’s also a group phenomenon requiring the exchange of information among friends and foe. You could say that a federal election is a process of group intelligence. Nowadays, biologists, psychologists, computer and mechanical engineers work together to copy in machines the many forms of cleverness observed in nature. And since intelligence is expressed by groups, culture is part of its nature.

At first, as I was reading through the scientific literature, I was surprised to see the word culture being used at all. It appeared most frequently in articles dealing with the intelligence of primates, our closest evolutionary relatives. I couldn’t understand why.  I mean come on, isn’t culture a specific compendium of paintings, music, literature, religion, languages and odd forms of dress? Don’t our diverse cultures separate us from each other and raise us up above all the rest?

For cognitive specialists such as Frans B. M. de Waal of Emory University and Anne E. Russon of York University, culture means the ways in which useful processes or tools are invented and passed on to a community. De Waal mainly studies chimps, bonobos and elephants. He uses the word culture when he writes about a female chimp figuring out how to pry a melon ball from a box and teaching the trick to her daughter. He has spent a lot of time considering various forms of cooperation--group intelligence. He did one fascinating series of experiments with elephants. He set two of his study subjects a task that required them to cooperate and co-ordinate in order to reach a goal (access to a food treat). They went at it with a will, coordinating their movements beautifully. He did another experiment in which low ranking chimps figured out how to coordinate their movements in order to achieve a goal (access to a food treat) without letting their political masters in on the trick, thus keeping that treat to themselves. Anne E. Russon has documented how a group of Indonesian orangutans (rehabs who once lived with humans or in zoos) learned to fish in six years flat. They did it by watching humans catch and eat fish, and then by eating dead fish that had washed up on the shore of the island where they live, then by catching live fish trapped in shallow pools. They passed these methods on until most of the rehabs fished.

The interesting thing about this work is that it points to the shared evolutionary roots connecting animal cultural achievements to our own. Primates, like humans, display an innate sense of fairness, are capable of organizing their experience through gestural story-telling, and have political organizations involving hierarchies and reciprocity. I soon found myself thinking about all cultures-- theirs, ours-- in a new way, as the equivalent of an external thumb drive through which useful innovations and ideas are shared.

Russon also sees a common pattern to the way novel ideas spread through very different primate societies. Usually it’s a juvenile who tries something new. Even if it proves to be a really terrific skill, it won’t be taken up by the rest of the community until someone very high up in the social hierarchy tries it and finds it useful. This high ranking and usually female person will then teach it to her young. Eventually the trick will spread to all of her descendants. In other words, the reach of any cultural practice has to do not only with its usefulness, but also with being blessed by authority. First a method is observed or invented by someone lowly, even someone who is despised. If it is picked up by a leader, it will be transmitted by that leader back down the social ladder. This process can be seen pretty much everywhere you look in human societies.

Ideas which spread are by definition useful in some way. But useful is not the same as good.

Some are downright dreadful. Which brings me back to barbaric cultural practices and this election campaign.

We Canadians have plenty of experience with the top down propagation of dreadful cultural practices. In the latter part of the 19th Century, as Canada was being formed, the leadership of this country had a problem to solve. Native people in the West far outnumbered the European immigrants who were being recruited to populate the plains and help tie Canada together from coast to coast. Farmers and ranchers require settled boundaries and land titles that may be sold and resold. No farmer would be happy about a group of native people trekking across his homestead in search of buffalo or other game. Somehow, native people in the West had to be convinced to end their annual migrations (or their sea voyages on the West coast) and settle down on designated pieces of land, preferably the worst.

Since the buffalo were so central to native livelihoods, the buffalo were wiped out. Hungry people make very bad deals. But how do you make farmers out of migratory hunter-gatherers? Eradicate their cultures and start fresh! So Canada offered free education in exchange for the treaties that expunged any residual native land rights. Then, the federal government wrenched generation after generation of native children from their parents’ arms, locking them up in terrible schools whose main goal was to wipe their cultures from their minds, starting with their languages. This was justified by describing native children as being in the thrall of barbaric cultural practices. [By the time I went to school, my history text coyly described native people as pagans—this was mid 20th Century code for barbaric cultural practices.] Christian values had to be instilled even as native religions and festivals were outlawed. Successive governments made the Potlatch illegal, the Sun Dance illegal. It even became illegal for native people to leave their reserves without the permission of an Indian agent.

We know now that the real barbaric cultural practices were the ones visited on native children as young as five by the missionaries of the various religious denominations hired to run these schools. (Why religious groups rather than secular teachers? Cheaper!) We know now about the beatings, the rapes, the epidemics, the unmarked graves and unreported deaths. We even know about the use of an electric chair as a torture device. The federal government knew about most of these things all along, but in the main didn’t tell. The rest of us learned of the barbaric cultural practices done in our name because the federal government was forced to create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a result of being sued by native people seeking redress. Native people told their stories to that Commission and the government—so reluctantly, in fact under court order-- eventually turned over its files. That was long after one of the Prime Minister’s early acts upon becoming Prime Minister. As part of the settlement, he stood in the House of Commons and apologized unreservedly to native people for all the barbaric cultural practices done to them.

How then to explain that this government passed a law called The Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act? You would think that a Prime Minister who had apologized for his predecessors' roles in wiping out other peoples cultures by engaging in Barbaric Cultural Practices would be unwilling to give any law such a title.

But it is this title that was supposed to make this law a useful political tool, a cultural artifact of value.

The law itself changes very little. It outlaws marriage with a person under the age of 16, outlaws forced marriages, outlaws polygamy. I think it is safe to say that these things were already illegal in Canada before this Act was passed. It creates a new a crime punishable by jail for anyone who knowingly officiates at, or even celebrates such unions. This law will also prevent any would-be immigrants to Canada from settling here if they  have more than one spouse. (Take that Saudi Princes! You are not welcome here!) This law was drafted to alert the electorate to the government’s view that this election should not be about Bill C-51, or the Duffy scandal, or the economy, stupid, it should be about Canada’s trembling insecurity in the face of terror, terror brought to us by people known for  Barbaric Cultural Practices.

Canadians were supposed to infer from this title that Barbaric Cultural Practices equal Muslim cultural practices because the Muslim religion permits polygamy under certain conditions. (Mormons don’t do this anymore, just a few radical and excommunicated rogues have been marrying children in BC.) Radical Muslims became security threats with 9/11. But all Muslims became suspect after a recent convert shot his way to the very doors of the House of Commons last October, causing the Prime Minister to hide in a closet. We are told that the Prime Minister's Office (that means his political staff) began scrutinizing applications for asylum from people fleeing Syria and Iraq in January, even though these applicants had already been approved the UNHCR, Citizen and Immigration Canada, and the Border folks, according to Joe Friesen in the Globe and Mail. The Prime Minister in our system has the last word on matters related to security, but political staff --the PMO--are not supposed to see such files. Apparently the Prime Minister had become concerned that the UNHCR was sending Syrian refugees who might not fit into Canadian society or were not downtrodden enough (because they are Sunni Muslims, not persecuted minorities such as gays, Christians, Yazidis). A Danish NGO was hired to help figure out who is who.The Syrian asylum flow slowed to a trickle even as thousands upon thousands were dying trying to get to safety.

However, the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act proved to be less than useful as a tool. It somehow failed to focus voters' attention in the right direction. Last month, the polls still showed that the three main parties contending to lead the government were running neck and neck. So last Friday, only a week before this Thanksgiving weekend, a time when Canadians might sit around the dining room tables talking politics, two federal cabinet ministers, Chris Alexander (Citizenship and Immigration) and Kellie Leitch (Women) held a press conference. They reminded voters of the Act's existence and announced a Barbaric Cultural Practices snitch line! It will permit each of us to inform on the Barbaric Cultural Practices of our neighbors to the RCMP.

As I watched the news clip, I thought Leitch and Alexander looked terrible, exhausted, as if someone had sucked out their very souls.

Apparently the snitch line didn’t do the trick either. Perhaps these two leaders are just too lowly to be paid attention to. Shortly after the press conference, the Prime Minister allowed himself to be interviewed by a CBC reporter. The background was a manufacturing plant. The subject should have been the economy. But somehow the Prime Minister felt moved to say that if reelected he would consider a law denying women who cover their faces with niqabs any job with the federal government.

Of course such a law would be dealt a death blow by the first judge who got a chance to rule on it, just as Zunera Ishaq, who wants to swear her citizenship oath wearing her niqab, has had her right to do so affirmed in the federal court and in the Federal Court of Appeals.

But what the heck.

He said it anyway.

So here’s where we are. A dreadful cultural tool created by juveniles has been publicly blessed by the Leader. We, the voters, are expected to ignore the big issues that are in front of us as a nation. Our Leader wants Barbaric Cultural Practices to be at the front of our minds when we mark our ballots in our once-every-four-years exercise in group intelligence.

I think we should all go to the polls with niqabs in our hands.

This election is about the Leader, stupid.

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