Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Racism is personal and economic

Folks, I'd like to share with you today some of the most important insights I've picked up in my world travels. Please feel free to add, agree, disagree, whatevs, in the comments.

1. People don't realize how little they empathize with people who are different

Here I'm not just talking about people of a different color, but also of another gender, age, economic class, education level, belief system, language, and others.

It's interesting how natural it is for the human brain to create a simple shorthand, perceiving different groups in terms of a handful of stereotypes. It's not surprising, really -- I think that the ability to identify with other individuals at all is the exceptional trait. It's not clear whether any other species is capable of it.

It seems, however, that human empathy has some limitations. Obviously it takes more work to relate to people whose experiences are very different than your own. What is counter-intuitive is how hard it is to grasp that foreign/other groups are as varied as your own group. To explain what I mean, let me use a couple of examples. First, the "Smurfette effect."

Smurfs come in all these different categories: the wise elder, the jokester, the artist, the girl, etc. Feminists have long noted that girls are as varied as guys, hence "girl" shouldn't be a role/trait on the same level with "baker" or "brainy-know-it-all."

But the thing is that the "Smurfette effect" isn't merely something that happens when men think about women. People (unintentionally) limit their picture of other groups in the same way. For example, take the category of "the French person." As I noted earlier, he nearly always dresses up as Marcel Marceau (and tends to have a particular -- stereotyped -- set of traits).

When I first moved to France, then, it was a bit of an epiphany. It's not that I thought French people all fit the stereotype (and dressed like Marcel Marceau...). Yet it was still a learning experience to really get that they have the same range of human types -- little kids, old people, really nerdy computer guys, etc. -- not just the small subset of educated, cosmopolitan young adult French folks that I'd met in the U.S.

(Maybe I should be ashamed to admit this, but) the first time I saw a black lady scolding her daughter in French, I was actually mildly startled to hear a black person speaking anything other than English. On an intellectual level it was no surprise, but it made me realize that (on an unconscious level) I had a rather limited mental picture both of French people and of black people.

(Another counter-intuitive point is that learning a new culture tends to merely increase your mental "us" category, but doesn't stop you from stereotyping other other groups. It helps, but learning a new culture doesn't automatically confer some sort of blanket enlightenment.)

2. One shouldn't be ashamed to admit to ignorance and uncertainty, one should be ashamed to not want to learn.

As far as racism and bigotry are concerned, I think it's important to recognize what we're up against. Even wanting to avoid racism/bigotry/stereotyping is a non-trivial step -- one that should be commended. On the other hand, I doubt there's a single person on the planet who has completely overcome the tendency to stereotype other groups.

Every time you notice an unfounded prejudice that you hold, you should be glad that you noticed it -- because it is only by noticing it that you can root it out. Having empathy for all humanity is something you can work on for your whole life and never truly succeed. Yet, some things are worth doing even though they're very hard.

It's also important to keep in mind that racism exists in every human culture. It's wrong (and ironic) to dismiss an entire culture as "those guys are the bigots, unlike our enlightened tradition." Ignorance and hate need to be fought within every culture.

3. People don't recognize how heavily their sense of what is "right" and "fair" is skewed towards favoring their own group.

I'd like to build a little on what I said in be the good guys and stand by your home-grown tyrant.

Humans value fairness as a virtue for society to strive for. At the same time -- if you read any human literature or stories -- you see immediately that a "good/happy" outcome is one where the protagonist comes out ahead. Humans simultaneously believe "good = fair" and "good = we win." That's why I don't like stories that have a classic villain who does evil just out of a pure love of evil. I think that type of story encourages people to view rivals as being motivated by evil -- as opposed to understanding that typically a rival is just someone else who wants what you want just like you.

In order to determine what is fair, you have to understand your rivals' needs, desires, and motivations. And in order to decide how to treat others, you have to try to see from their perspective -- not just project your own 2-D mental cartoon images onto them.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Blog Retrospective: Clash of Cultures!

Being an expat, I'm always interested in that mysterious space where cultures interact! How do we perceive each other? This question has been one of the main themes of my blog from the beginning. Here's a little taste of how my ideas on the subject have evolved over the past few years:

Have you ever wondered what the French think of peanut butter and Vegemite? Or what they think of "freedom fries"? Or what's my least favorite thing about France? (Hint: it's the merde). Well, wonder no more -- just follow the links!

Of course, anyone who has even a passing familiarity with this blog knows that my favorite thing about Europe is the transportation!!! I loved it when I was Living Downtown and Car-Free in Bordeaux, I've loved le metro ever since I first visited Paris, and I absolutely adore it here in Zurich: Transportation Paradise!! (Even if the Swiss rules of etiquette are a little mysterious...)

(Other great benefits, of course, are the education and health care.)

One of the most interesting things about moving to a new country is learning a new language! It's fun for the kids to test the linguistic boundaries. As for the grown-ups...? I contend that A foreign language is best learned in the bedroom . But that's not to say that good ol' English is uninteresting! Au contraire ! What with its million tenses and grammar rules that are made to be, like, broken. ;^)

And how's that culture shock? After a certain time abroad, my original country starts looking like a parallel universe, where the same laws of physics do not apply. After learning the richness of a new culture, it's frustrating to see your old compatriots reducing your new compatriots to cartoon characters! And don't forget the further-culture-shock adventure of moving from France to Switzerland -- It seems like it shouldn't be that big a deal, but it is! (Lucky thing I have my fellow weirdos to keep me company.)

And how do I fit into all of this? Well, you can start with my misadventures at a couple of big Catholic weddings. Or have a look at my time capsule: Baby's day in Bordeaux. Or have a look at some of my photos of the things you see in Bordeaux, of my life in Bordeaux, of the scale model of the solar system in Zurich, of Europride Zurich, and -- as a bonus -- of Lago Maggiore.

And do I miss my old traditions? Being a "cultural Mormon" in Europe? Stay tuned for next week's blog retrospective to find out!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Six of Pentacles

So, I've finally gotten my act together sufficiently to participate in the final day of John Remy's creativity experiment. Today's theme is the six of pentacles.

Here's the part of the "six of pentacles" I'm illustrating:

having/not having resources
taking care of/being taken care of
supporting/being supported

having/not having power

Naturally, I'm also thinking a bit about my recent discussion with mathmom (see the comments), and I'm starting to think there's quite a bit more to be said about a comprehensive/inclusive feminist theory. Stay tuned! :D

Monday, March 22, 2010

Spring Cleaning!

Yep, it's getting to be about time to spruce things up around the ol' blog. It hit me the other day that I haven't updated the "greatest hits" selection in my sidebar in years!! (Wow, time sure flies fast when you're blogging.)

I don't think this ancient selection is still the best of this blog, so I combed through my archives and selected a bunch of new choices. I'll update the sidebar when I get a minute later this week.

I also noticed that I'm starting to get to the point where I've blogged from Switzerland almost as long as I ever blogged from France. Will I ever get around to updating my masthead?? Stay tuned!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Caption Contest!!!

I just read that Sunstone Magazine is going to be doing a special issue of LDS-themed comics, and they announced an open call for submissions!!!

Since I love light stories about Mormons -- and since improving my illustration/comics-drawing skills is right up there on my list of goals -- I'd really, really like to submit something. The only problem is that my plate is too full at the moment, so there's no way I'll have time to come up with something good between now and May 15.


It hit me that some of the illustrations I've already done might make good single-panel comics if only they had really hilarious captions! This is where you come in. I've reprinted below some of the ones that I think have the most potential:






(Feel free to look around for others if these aren't the most inspiring.)

Naturally, if you come up with something that turns one of these into a one-panel comic funny enough for Suntone, I'll split the credit and payment with you.

(Given that the comic will occupy about 1/4 page, at $25 per page, you could potentially win as much as $3.13 -- not to mention the corresponding fame and glory!)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

One Humanist Symposium Coming Up!

In three weeks I'll be hosting the Humanist Symposium -- so I hope you all will have lots of fantastic posts for me!!! :D

In the meantime, check out the current (Mother-and-Pi-Day) Edition!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

My new Java book is done!!

Remember how I recently got back from spending six months in the U.S.? And how I was working on a mysterious project while I was there?

Well, it's done!!

Yep, I was working on a new book about how to program video games for the BlackBerry. So if you have an idea for a fun new game -- or if you're just looking for a new hobby -- why not Learn BlackBerry Games Development?

Have a look at the book's website and see what you think! :D

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Enforcing the bilingual rules!

Since we've moved to Z├╝rich, I don't have much opportunity anymore to speak French. My husband speaks to the kids in French most of the time, but they often respond to him in English. (And we're all learning German in school.) Naturally, I've tried to increase the amount of French I/we speak at home, but it's an uphill battle.

Just the other day, a colleague stated that if you put your kids in a situation where they have to learn too many languages (and don't follow careful rules about it), then the kids will never learn language correctly, and will spend their lives speaking some sort of pidgin. I'm very leery of such ideas. Kids are programmed to learn language without any special instruction. As long as they have a reasonable amount of human social interaction, they'll learn to use language correctly. So I don't agree that it's critical (for their development) to strictly follow the rule that I always speak to the kids in English and my husband in French.

That said -- even if I want to break that rule -- my eight-year-old son Nico is quite intent on enforcing it. (Leo is less picky, and is OK with speaking to me in French, even though he prefers English.) Nico complains whenever I speak to him in French. And the other day, he gave me an intriguing explanation of why:

"It's like you're not my mom -- it's like you're a different person." [when I speak French]

It's interesting. It seems like kids sometimes have a strict mental sorting of which person goes with which language.

Nico is willing to switch languages occasionally, though, if we're specifically making a game of it -- playing school or something.

Out of the blue, on the bus on the way to school, Nico said to me, "I understand why you don't want speak English all the time. It's because it's so ordinary and boring to just speak English."

"Yes, exactly," I said.

So Nico then devised a game where we'd speak French for a week and then German for a week and the English for a week (and came up for an elaborate point system for what to do if you use the wrong language). Since French was first, we discussed all the rules in French. It was fun!

By that afternoon, he'd forgotten about the game, and I didn't bother to remind him.

If the kids want to speak to me in French, fine. If not, that's OK. For my own sake, I just signed up to take yoga in French. :D

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Poor Dawkins!

Another kind of nonbeliever in the popular imagination is the arrogant professor, exemplified Richard Dawkins. Too smart for his own good, this kind of atheist talks down you, and nobody likes a smarty pants.

-- MoHoHawaii

I don't want to pick on my friend MoHoHawaii for writing the above -- he wasn't giving his personal judgment of Richard Dawkins, he was merely reporting on a popular view of Prof. Dawkins.

But what did Dawkins ever do to get this reputation?

Well, I've developed a new crazy theory about it!

It came to me while watching these Symphony of Science videos with my kids:

See that part around 2:44? Where he says "Science replaces private prejudice with public verifiable evidence"? That's a great quote, but (is this just my imagination?) it looks like he's sneering when he says it.

You should be jumping for joy when you say that!! Evaluating your own biases is one of the most difficult problems that humans face on a daily basis. That we have an effective tool to help us work on that problem -- that's fantastic!

Of course, maybe I'm just being too hard on Richard Dawkins. After all, Jill Tarter also had a great quote in that song ("The story of humans is the story of ideas that shine light into dark corners"), and she didn't smile either.

But now compare to my favorite of the Symphony of Science songs:

Of course I'm huge fan of David Attenborough. How could anybody not like that guy?

The kids say their favorite song in the series is still the first one, the "galaxy rise" song:

That one is my second-favorite. :D