The Overturning

Yesterday I put the TV on at about noon as usual because I like to watch something while I eat lunch. The CBC was showing live coverage from outside the American Supreme Court building because the court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade had just been officially released, and many people had already amassed in response. Most of the crowd were carrying signs of protest, defiance, and outrage, but many also held placards celebrating that “children” would no longer be murdered. I don’t know if violence ever broke out, but there was a high wire fence around the building to protect those inside just in case. Remember, this is America where they just love a good fight.

Suhana Meharchand interviewed several people over the next 30 minutes as the network waited to air Joe Biden’s live response at 12:30. The first person she spoke with was an American constitutional lawyer who elaborated on the legal implications of the decision. The attorney’s initial point was that this is the first time in American history that an established legal right has been wholly taken away from a group of people, and that she feared this set a very dangerous precedent which, given the current make-up of the court, will almost certainly lead to others losing rights in the near future. Her guess was that the legality of same-sex marriage would be the first to go. When asked about the possibility of this decision being overturned, she suggested that any such scenario could only play out very far in the future given the relative youth of the justices, and the fact that they are appointed for life. Needless to say I was not cheered by her appearance. 

Next came an interview with a CBC reporter who specializes in Canadian health care. There are 13 trigger states which already have laws banning abortion on the books, and these laws either came immediately into effect yesterday, or shortly will. Three of these state – Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Michigan – either touch on, or are very close to, the Canadian border. Meharchand asked the reporter if Canadian hospitals and abortion clinics are prepared, or even able, to help women from these states who will now be forced to cross the border to get their procedures done. The reporter said there is certainly a will to assist these woman, but that facilities are absolutely stretched to the limit. Abortion clinic quotas are more than filled by Canadian women, and procedures in hospitals across the country are already running woefully behind because of Covid. 

Then Joe Biden came on. I know he is somewhat addled and more than a little doddering, but I think his heart is in the right place, and he is still 1,000 times better than Trump. It was clear as Biden spoke that he is as disheartened and appalled by this decision as most of us are, and he laid the blame squarely at Trump and the Republicans feet because the three deciding justices were all put in during Trump’s presidency. He asked people to please not react to this decision with violence, and reminded them that there is a democratic, peaceful way to ensure that women regain the right to safe and timely abortions – by voting in pro-choice representatives to the house and senate this coming November. Legislative bodies are there to enact laws which reflect the will of the people, and a majority of Americans feel that women should have the right to choose. It was good that he ended on a positive, pro-democratic note, but it was clear from his word choice and demeanour throughout the speech that he feels this decision is a major step backwards.

It is hard for me to put into words how elementally shaken I am right now. This decision was largely fuelled by Republicans pandering to a rabid, fundamental Christian base which has long wanted its will and moral precepts forced on the country at large. The risk they run in allowing a vocal religious minority to hold such sway is that they could very well end up turning into a theocracy. The originalists on the Supreme Court justified their decision to overturn Roe by saying that the right to abortions has no basis in law because it is not mentioned in the Constitution, even though it is clear from previous public statements made by all five of the deciding justices that they personally oppose abortion on religious grounds. They hold up the Constitution as the final arbiter to disguise their own Christian bias. Yet Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, all of whom had a hand in drafting the Constitution, wrote explicitly and at length about the absolute necessity for a separation of church and state. The hypocrisy, or at least the self-serving nature of such cherry picking by these justices is reprehensible. They are not jurists, they are holier-than-thou bullies who are using their power to subvert the will of the people while furthering their own moral perspectives and objectives. Shame!

I signed a petition yesterday urging our government to strengthen Canada’s laws protecting a woman’s right to choose. I think it is highly unlikely that such a draconian slashing of abortion rights will happen here, but it never hurts to shore up the defences. We share an incredibly long border with the U.S., and we are bombarded by their culture daily. The people celebrating the overturning of Roe have been chipping away at it since it came into effect almost 50 years ago. It may be the case that anti-abortionist up here are taking notes from their play book, and have already started planning strategies for a similar long-game in Canada. We must stay vigilant.

The Storm Before the Calm

This past Saturday an unusual and intense storm passed through Ontario, leaving a path of destruction, shattered trees, and downed power lines in its wake. My city was badly effected, and now, four days after the event, thousands of people are still without hydro. Luckily I only lost power for 31 hours, although my internet, TV, and phone are as yet not working. The particular wind storm we had is called a derecho, pronounced deh-RAY-cho, a Spanish word I had never heard before. Derechos are straight line wind storms that advance with a series of fast-moving, severe thunderstorms. They can sometimes extend for hundreds of miles, like an elongated, deadly wind tunnel. 

I had lunch with friends on the patio of a local restaurant on Saturday. We sat in the welcome shade of a spreading tree so none of us noticed the menacing sky until we got up to pay. The clouds were almost black, and the air pressure had dropped precipitously, igniting the primitive instinct all animals have to be wary when a storm is about to hit. We hastily said our goodbyes and hustled off to our respective cars. I had barely reached mine when the first heavy drops began to fall. Within seconds my car was enveloped in water, as though I had driven into a car wash, and I couldn’t decide if it was safer to drive the scant five minutes which would see me home, or to wait out the worst of the wind and rain where I was. At that very moment a large branch from the tree I had parked under came crashing down, landing mere inches from my front bumper, and made the decision for me. Obviously it wasn’t safe to remain where I was, so I put the car in gear and drove.

I thought I might just move into an open area, but as I got going it became clear that large objects weren’t just falling from above, they were also being blown sideways through the air. Just then, less than a minute into the storm, the power downtown went off with a flash and a bang, and all things considered I decided going home was my best option. What followed was a drive from hell in which I found myself dodging skittering debris with very little, and occasionally no, reaction time or visibility. I had to hold tight to the wheel to overcome the wind gusts which periodically threatened to push me off course while remaining mindful of the other drivers who were also blindly navigating the storm. It wasn’t a long trip, but it was extremely intense. I was beyond relieved when I pulled into my driveway, and just getting from my car into the house left me sufficiently wet that I needed to towel off and change my shirt. 

The worst of the wind only lasted for about 15 minutes, but the devastation it wrought is intense. Cars and sections of houses were crushed by fallen branches, entire trees were uprooted, hydro poles were snapped in half like toothpicks, and in some places whole lines of them fell like dominos. Hydro workers have been unstinting in their dedication to get things up and running in the days since the storm, but such massive damage takes time to repair and, I assume, must be done methodically. Downed lines which pose a health threat must be quickly dealt with, and getting medical facilities and grocery stores up and running has to be a priority. I’m sure they have plans in place for just such emergencies, and I am grateful for how quickly they have responded to this crisis.

The Chinese say that crisis is half danger and half opportunity – I have easily perceived the former in this situation, and while I have had to look a little deeper to find the latter, it is definitely there. Sunday morning I went out front and stood on the sidewalk in front of my house. I looked up and down the street to assess the wind damage and noticed little clutches of people everywhere. Humans naturally come together after, or even during, a shared crisis. The people on my street, many of whom normally have nothing to do with their neighbours, had organically coalesced to swap stories about the storm, and to speculate together about how soon things would return to normal. There is a deep, unspoken comfort in being with others who understand exactly the trauma you’ve been through, and to share the doubts, questions, and fears such events spawn in the human psyche. This storm facilitated people  meeting and possibly forming bonds of friendship with others who live close by, and that is a welcome opportunity I don’t think could have come about any other way. 

As an aside, I think the lose of our deeply human need to share our thoughts and misgivings about Covid face-to-face with groups of others made the last two years and the psychological hardships of the lockdowns much worse than they would otherwise have been. It was already extremely scary to think about the threat of a novel, sometimes deadly virus, not to mention very difficult and lonely not to meet up with family and friends, and I feel these problems were made exponentially worse by our inability to gather andtalk them through with people facing the same threat and worries.

The opportunity afforded by Saturday’s maelstrom manifested in my life in another way as well. I have three coloured, decorative metal orbs in my front garden, and the green one blew away in the storm. These spheres are probably about 30 cm in diameter, and I could only hope that this relatively large metal object didn’t do any damage as it was picked up and forcibly hurled by the wind. Yesterday morning I put the garbage and recycling by the curb as usual, and when I turned around to head back into the house I noticed that the green orb had been returned. I guess the person who saw it wherever it landed recognized it as being mine, or perhaps they didn’t know where it came from so they walked or drove around the neighbourhood until they saw the other spheres in my yard and assumed it belonged with its mates. Either way that simple act of consideration has restored my increasingly shaky faith in human beings, at least for now. There is so much discord, meanness, and violence in the world that it is nice to be reminded that most people are basically good and kind.

Here We Go Again

Several decades ago Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Hughes, the co-founders of MS magazine, were in a cab in New York City. They were discussing possible issues they could address at an upcoming feminist rally – should they talk about the scarcity of business and educational opportunities for women, the lack of maternity leave and affordable child care, or the humiliating reality that women needed a man’s permission to get a credit card or open a bank account? Their conversation eventually swerved into female reproductive rights at the very moment when they stopped at a red light. The taxi driver, whom neither had noticed was a woman, turned around and said, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” 

The unvarnished truth of this statement galvanized the two women in the back seat. They realized that all other rights and freedoms pale in comparison to having autonomy over one’s body. Ruth Bader Ginsburg put it succinctly in a 1972 case she argued before the Supreme Court. She said that choosing whether or not to have a child is, “…something central to a woman’s life, to her dignity,” and, “…when the government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a full adult human responsible for her own choices.” Roe v. Wade, which gave American women the legal right to choose and obtain abortions, came into effect the following year.

Now, half a century later, it looks as though this landmark decision is about to be overturned. This will cede decisions about the legality of abortions to the states, 24 of which have already drafted horribly restrictive laws, and some full-out bans, which they will immediately enact when Roe falls. This means that an alarming 50% of the contiguous United States is gleefully poised to completely undermine the bodily autonomy of half of their citizens. It is an outrage beyond words, and one that surely would not even be considered were it not exclusively women’s bodies being affected.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote the opinion in the case that will overturn Roe, and in it he says that the right to abortion has no legal standing because it is not mentioned in the Constitution. The American Constitution was written 250 years ago by a group of privileged, slave-owning white men. There is no mention of abortion in the document because there is no mention of women in the document. Women did not even have the right to vote until 1920. There are a lot of other civil rights’ initiatives that are not mentioned in the Constitution, such as the recent ruling that gay people may legally marry. One has to wonder if this will be the next casualty of the right’s assault on social progress.

I’ve recently read several articles which include the term American anti-abortionists are currently using to describe embryos and foetuses – pre-born children. Words matter, and calling largely unformed lumps of cells “children” grants them personhood, thus making abortion murder. But the actual time when the entity in the womb becomes a human being is very much in dispute. Science says that a developing foetus is not a person until it becomes viable outside the uterus at approximately 24 weeks gestation, which is why many existing laws allow abortions throughout the first two trimesters. Some religious folks, however, feel that personhood begins at conception because that is evidently when God endows a two-celled, microscopic blob with a human soul. I would argue that these people are absolutely entitled to their opinion, but it should have no force in law because it is entirely dependent on faith. Religious belief should never inform legislation, for that is surely the road to theocracy and, as Winston Churchill said, “…democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.” 

This harping on the pre-born child also completely ignores the rights of women who, I think we can all agree, are already born and functioning in the world. What of their hopes and aspirations, not to mention their ability to contribute to the economy? And it is not just pregnant women who will suffer when Roe is quashed. Spontaneous miscarriages are extremely common – I myself had one and know several other women who did as well. What is a doctor to do if a woman who is losing her baby through no fault of her own comes to the hospital because she is bleeding excessively. (Hemorrhaging and sepsis are two common risk factors of spontaneous abortions.) If the foetus still has a heartbeat, the doctor will be legally prohibited from speeding up the process. Even if the woman is in jeopardy of bleeding out or becoming septic, in other words even if she may die, the presence of a fetal heartbeat means the doctor still may not expedite the abortion. There is a very fine line between when a patient may die, and when they definitely will die, and making that call just became infinitely harder. If someone decides that a medical professional acted prematurely, despite the fact that the foetus was going to die regardless and that such action almost certainly saved the woman’s life, then they have the right to report their concerns to authorities. At that time the doctor can be sued or, in some states, charged with murder.

Many devastating fetal anomalies, such as genetic disorders and anatomical malformations, can be detected in utero. Making women have children regardless of such concerns will force thousands of men and women to deal with the on-going heartbreak of a chronically ill child, not to mention scrambling to pay for the massively expensive healthcare services these children often require. Also, such children will be brought into a world of suffering and quite possibly die young and in considerable distress. Compelling women to bring unwanted children to term for any reason is just unkind. Many low-income couples make the decision together to abort an accidental pregnancy, thereby avoiding extra strain on their already limited finances and the stress and deprivation their entire family would have to endure were another child added to the mix. Perhaps the cruelest manifestation of abortion bans, however, is that they doubly victimize rape and incest survivors unlucky enough to have been impregnated by their abusers by forcing them to carry the result of their violation to term.

Making abortions illegal also opens up a return to the bad-old-days when women ended up sterile, or even died, from obtaining back-room procedures or attempting to miscarry on their own. In some places it is actually going to be even worse than it used to be because they are enacting laws which allow the state to charge women who try to miscarry with attempted murder if they fail, and with murder if they succeed. There are already American women who, because they used illegal drugs while pregnant, have been convicted of manslaughter after spontaneously aborting even though there is no scientific evidence that their drug use caused the miscarriage. 38 U.S. states have foetal assault laws on the books which allow for such outrageous and unjust prosecutions. 

I feel it is every woman’s absolute right to decide whether she wants to have a child or not, whatever her reasons, and many smart and respected women, including Margaret Atwood, agree. I recently read her response to the latest legal assaults on women in the U.S. Her article begins with her saying that Gilead, the dystopian version of America in her novel “The Handmaid’s Tale”, is fictional, but she fears that the Supreme Court is making it real. She says, “Theocratic dictatorships do not lie only in the distant past. There are a number of them on the planet today. What is to prevent the United States from becoming one of them?” What indeed.

An(other) American Tragedy

There has been yet another mass shooting by a disgruntled young white man in the States. This time it was an 18-year-old who walked into a grocery store in Buffalo yesterday afternoon and proceeded to kill 10 people, 9 of whom were black, and injure 3 others, 2 of whom were black. It has been discovered that he posted a racist manifesto online, and that he live-streamed the shootings. It sickens me to think that there are people who willfully, and maybe even gleefully, watched this massacre.

Hate crimes of this sort have become commonplace in the U.S. I saw a little bit of “Meet the Press” this morning and the only black man on the panel, Rev. Al Sharpton, sensibly suggested that President Biden should call an emergency meeting with leaders from the Asian, Black, Latinx, Jewish, and LGBTQ communities since these are the minorities being targeted. He also made the extremely salient point that the young shooter in Buffalo was an impressionable 15-year-old when he heard his president, the highest authority in the land, say that there were good people on both sides of the Charlottesville rally.

I then listened while two white members of the panel decried this latest tragedy, then ended their denunciations with the completely ridiculous claim that such acts are not representative of their country. “This is not America.” Oh, but it is!

I get so frustrated when talking heads on American TV repeatedly roll out the old trope that the U.S. is the greatest country in the world, and that these deadly acts of hatred are anomalies, despite their increasing frequency and ferocity. It seems as if even the most educated among them are so thoroughly steeped in unquestioning patriotism that they dismiss, or choose to willfully ignore, the many international markers which undermine their position.

America is pretty far down the list of several key indicators of national “greatness”. They rank 27th in social mobility, which puts paid to the so-called American dream that anyone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, and 25th in education. (Just as an FYI, Canada ranks 14th and 6th respectively on these lists.) They do rank first on the number of guns owned by private citizens, outstripping the next country two to one with a whopping 120.5 firearms for every 100 people. They also pay more for healthcare per capita than any other developed nation, surpassing the nearest country by 25%, and they lead the first world in maternal mortality rates.

Nothing will, or even can change in America until they manage to get past their self-perceived superiority. Sure they are denouncing Putin now, but let’s not forget that 20 years ago they breached the border of an autonomous country and proceeded to kill an estimated 300,000 innocent Iraqis in an unjustified and illegal war. And this differs from the current situation in Ukraine how?

I have always maintained, and will continue to do so, that pride is the worst deadly sin. America is a living example of the dreadful cost innocent people pay when it goes unchecked.

Girls on Film

I have watched a lot of TV lately, what with the latest lockdown and the freezing cold temperatures. There is a finite amount of good television produced, and thus I’ve seen some pretty mediocre to bad programming. I watched the entirety of a seven-part British murder mystery series on Netflix called “Stay Close”, despite the story being built on a gapping plot hole. The main character was a stripper as a young woman, and when a patron who was obsessed with her showed up beaten to death, she ran away fearing she would be blamed for the murder. She didn’t flee to a far-off city to start over as any sane person would, but rather simply moved across town. What!? Also, the catalyst for the story is an inexplicable visit she makes to the strip club some 17 years after she took off. At least she’s well-disguised, however, what with that blond wig and all. I must admit I stuck with this show to the end because I wanted to see the case solved and the supporting cast was quite good, but normally I find such obvious flaws in the story so distracting that I simply cannot continue. It’s the reason I never watched “Everybody Loves Raymond”. There’s absolutely no way Raymond’s wife would agree to live across the street from his horrible, interfering parents.

I’ve also watched shows simply because they were the best thing on at a given moment. This is how I ended up watching a documentary about Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction at the 2004 Super Bowl, a subject in which I have virtually no interest whatsoever. I missed the first 20 minutes or so and came in just as the production manager was discussing the final preparations for Jackson’s appearance. CBS, the NFL, and the FCC all have very strict “decency” codes, and I put the word in quotation marks because its definition broadens or narrows depending on who is using it. Decent behaviour conforms to accepted standards of morality or respectability, and these three bodies, along with many religious individuals and institutions, seem to feel it relates almost exclusively to things of a sexual nature. Even simple nudity and acts between consenting adults are considered inappropriate and unacceptable. I would argue that instances of deceit, abuse, and violence are much more indecent. 

Jackson’s management team assured the producers and sponsors that the show would be family friendly, without even a whiff of sexuality. What these bodies actually agreed to was that it was fine for Justin Timberlake to sing “Rock your Body”, which includes the lines, “…just do that ass shakin’ thing you do”, and, “…gonna have you naked by the end of this song.”, just as long as it was clear that Ms. Jackson wasn’t going to say or do anything naughty. Anyone else sensing a double standard here? 

The plan was for Timberlake to rip off a part of Jackson’s top right after the final lyrics, “…gonna have you naked by the end of this song.”, exposing a red bustier beneath. Timberlake mistakenly tore away both the top layer and the bustier in the heat of the moment, revealing Jackson’s right breast. It was not completely exposed because she was wearing a nipple patch, yet America responded by going insane. Let me just say here that the costumes of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders expose about as much of their breasts as we saw of Jackson’s, and yet the NFL, major broadcasters, and Americans generally are perfectly okay with that. What’s more, cheerleaders are bouncing around with their breasts on display for hours at a time, whereas Jackson’s breast was exposed for nine-sixteenths of a second. Yes that’s right, we glimpsed her breast for less than a second, and yet she was absolutely pilloried and shunned for her transgression.

The reaction from the FCC was swift and furious, fining CBS $550,000. Les Moonves, then president of CBS, was apoplectic. He felt the incident was an intentional bid to stir up controversy in general, and to embarrass him in particular. He banned Jackson and Timberlake from the 2004 Grammys which were being aired by CBS, but eventually allowed Timberlake back in after the latter made a long, tearful public apology. Jackson’s apology, on the other hand, was dry-eyed and short, and evidently Moonves felt she was not sufficiently contrite. It never occurred to him that she kept her comments brief because she was embarrassed after having just been utterly humiliated in front of millions of people. Not only did Jackson remain barred from the Grammys, but Moonves instructed MTV and VH1, which like CBS are subsidiaries of Viacom, along with all their affiliated radio stations, to stop playing Jackson’s music. This in turn tanked the album she had just released and significantly damaged a career which had previously produced ten #1 hits. I wasn’t surprised to read that Moonves was fired from CBS in 2017 amidst a flurry of sexual harassment charges. Gotta love the #METOO movement!

Jackson’s popularity had earned her label Virgin Records millions upon millions of dollars. This in turn added mightily to the personal coffers of Virgin’s owner and CEO, Richard Branson. For years Branson claimed that the revenue generated by Jackson’s album “Rhythm Nation” alone had been enough for him to buy, and erect several luxury buildings on, a private island. One might think he would feel a certain responsibility to step up for Jackson in her hour of need, but that’s not what happened. Branson was silent as Jackson was bad-mouthed by the media and black balled by hundreds of radio stations. He quietly waited until she had fulfilled the terms of her contract, and then just let her go. Branson has always enjoyed the reputation of being a nice guy, but I think this incident shows just what a craven, ungrateful, and unfaithful man he truly is. Clearly Richard is all about Richard, a fact made irrefutably clear when he recently forked out an estimated $600 million to spend 20 seconds in outer space. Sure climate change is wrecking the planet and millions of people need Covid shots, but what about what Richard wants?

Untold horrible things were said about the players in the costume malfunction, but the lion’s share was reserved for Jackson. The discrepancy was so obvious that even Timberlake commented on it in an interview less than a month after the incident. He said, “I am 50% responsible for what happened, but I’m only getting maybe 10% of the heat for it.” Jackson was lambasted not only by the press, but in popular entertainment as well. Chris Rock, a comedian I’ve never found overly funny, took a shot at her in one of his routines. He noted that Jackson was 40 years old, and nobody wants to see a 40-year-old “titty”. What’s more, women should know that by the time they’re 40 that it’s not their “titty” anymore, “…it’s their man’s titty.” I strongly feel that comedians have the right to poke fun at whatever they please, but the unmistakable implication of this joke is that women of a certain age, or at least particular parts of their bodies, belong to their men. I know it’s only a joke, but the idea behind it disturbs me, especially since I fear that there are still many men who think it’s funny because it’s true.

Jackson herself was already extremely insecure about her body. At 10 she had been cast in the Norman Lear comedy “Good Times”. She was an early bloomer and consequently was already developing breasts at the time. Lear and others in charge of the show wanted her to look more childlike, so they always bound her chest before she got into costume. Did I mention that she actually was a child? Imagine how that made Jackson feel about her burgeoning body. She has also struggled with weight issues for decades. Jackson was excited to go to college when she turned 18 – she knew exactly which university she wanted to attend, and which course of study she wished to pursue. Her father Joe, holder of the purse strings, said he would not pay. Rather, he pushed her into show business and, as her manager for the next several years, constantly nagged her about her weight. Jackson is a stress eater, and the battles she continues to have with her body began while her dad was in charge.

I have to wonder how the demonization of Jackson went over with her young fans in particular, and developing girls in general. Remember Jackson’s breast was only exposed for less than a second, and yet a firestorm of recrimination and insults ensued. How can pubescent girls feel good about their changing bodies when the media is telling them that even a glimpse of their chest is horrifying and immoral? While I’m at it, how can fully developed women either? Breasts are absolutely fetishized in North American culture. Women face hurtful comments if their breasts are deemed too big or too small, the latter designation leading some 300,000 American women to undergo the costly, extremely painful, and sometimes dangerous procedure of breast augmentation every year. We’re called sluts if we show too much cleavage, and frigid if we show too little. 

Certainly a women’s breasts are sometimes sexy, but sometimes they are not. This is a distinction that many cultures understand, but which seems to be largely absent in North America. The puritan American insistence on the indecency of sex means that any body parts considered sexual are consequently unseemly, and therefore are shameful and must be covered at all times. These strictures are particularly onerous for women as most of our bodies are seen as titillating. There is almost no part of us that can’t be perceived as sexual in a man’s gaze, which is why Muslim women are made to wear chador. 

The female form has evolved over millennia partly to attract a mate, as is the case with every other animal on the planet, but also to facilitate childbirth. We are an amalgam of the parts necessary to ensure the survival of our species, and yet we are constantly made to feel ashamed and unsure of our bodies. This is a time honoured and highly successful patriarchal strategy – men can maintain power much more easily as long as they keep us second-guessing ourselves. The trick for North American women is to not buy into this bogus perspective, especially considering that where sex is concerned, we actually hold all the cards. The vast majority of men are happy, and even grateful, to have sex with any woman, regardless of how she looks. So don’t compare yourself to other women or some ridiculous manufactured ideal, and don’t let men’s unrealistic expectations and hurtful comments bring you down. Try to be content with who you are and how you look. I know first-hand how extremely difficult such personal acceptance can be, but we will only achieve equality when we are strong in ourselves and can stand together against such disempowering tactics.

You Don’t Own Me

The feminist movement has been active for over a half century now, and yet I notice that there are still an alarming number of girls and women who are treated horribly by the men in their lives. Rape continues to be a common occurrence. According to data gathered by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, rape is the only violent crime in Canada which is increasing, 92% of those who report sexual assault to police are female, and over 70% of victims know their attacker. A U.N. committee on the status of women put out a report in 2015 raising concerns about the escalation of cyber misogyny and so-called revenge porn, which is when aggrieved men post intimate pictures of their former partners on social media as a way to publicly disgrace and humiliate them. The report was largely ignored, and instances of cyber harassment, threats, and shaming directed at girls and women continue to soar. Domestic abuse is another perennial problem, and there has been a sharp uptick in such incidents since the pandemic began.

While the fate of women in the personal arena has not improved, I am encouraged by the increased presence of female participants in the public sphere. There are growing numbers of women with leadership roles in government, the judiciary, and most especially, in medicine and medical research. Sexual harassment on the job is reportedly down, I think largely thanks to #METOO, and the gap between male and female salaries for equal work is incrementally shrinking. Women are producing and directing more independent films, taking advantage of the hole left by the dissolution of Harvey Weinstein’s company, and they are creating more and more shows featuring well rounded female characters to meet the ever-increasing need for content on streaming platforms. It is partly because of all these visible gains that I was so very alarmed and disheartened by the enactment of SB 8, more familiarly known as The Heartbeat Bill, which was passed by the Texas legislature on September 1st and then upheld a week later by the U.S. Supreme Court.

SB 8 allows citizens, as long as they do not work in government or a prosecutor’s office, to sue anyone they suspect of aiding and abetting a woman in obtaining an abortion after an electrical pulse has been detected in the womb, which usually occurs at about six weeks pregnant. Anyone but the woman seeking the procedure can be sued – the friend who recommended the clinic, the Uber driver who got her there, and of course any and all medical staff involved. Courts are directed to award successful plaintiffs in such cases a minimum of $10,000, while losing defendants must pay this fine along with their accuser’s legal fees. In other words, SB 8 effectively bans abortions by pitting Texans against one another while conveniently keeping the state out of the mix. The wording of this bill scares off people from helping women wanting or needing to terminate their pregnancies, while simultaneously eliminating the possibility of getting the law overturned in court. No governmental or judicial body brings charges under the bill, leaving its opponents with no entity to sue.

I learned of the existence of this bill when a friend posted about it on Facebook, and I immediately went on YouTube to see Texas governor Greg Abbott making the announcement. The bill effectively bans abortions after six weeks, even when the pregnancy was caused by incest or rape. When a reporter asked Abbott how he can justify a law which makes raped women carry an unwanted child to term, the governor said he will , “…make sure we eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas by aggressively going out and arresting them and prosecuting them…” An unbidden and furious, “Oh, fuck off!” flew out of my mouth in response to this fatuous response. Never in the history of the world has any government or society been able to eliminate rape. Never! Also, Texas currently has approximately 5,600 untested rape kits in storage, so saying that getting rid of rapists is a priority is demonstrably untrue. Most importantly, imprisoning all rapists in the future, were it even possible, is no help to the woman who has already been impregnated by one. The government is still forcing her to have that child. 

There are so many problems with the arbitrary six-week legal abortion limit established in this bill that it is hard to know where to begin. The “heartbeat” that is mentioned is actually a simple electrical pulse which bears absolutely no resemblance to a heart in either form or function; it does not have valves, chambers, or aortas, nor does it pump blood. This charge is so faint in its early stages that it is often impossible to detect unless the ultrasound machine and the technician running it are absolutely top notch. There are many health care facilities which simply can’t afford either of these. There are also countless women who have very irregular periods, so they wouldn’t even know to check if they are pregnant until after the window for legal termination had closed.

I garnered this information from a very enlightening video posted by a Texas OB/GYN named Dr. Danielle Jones. Dr. Jones has a YouTube channel on which she explains and answers viewer questions about menses and female reproductive health. She begins the video I watched by saying that SB 8 is full of misconceptions about how pregnancy works, making it imminently clear that no medical professionals were involved in its drafting. Most of her concerns about the bill have to do with her patients’ health, but she also worries about being sued for simply doing her job. The bill only allows abortions if there is no fetal heartbeat, or if it is absolutely clear that the mother will die if the pregnancy continues. Dr. Jones makes the point that the demarcation between the time when a mother might die and the time when she definitely will is never clear, which leaves medical staff in a terrible quandary. 

There are any number of complications which can put a pregnant woman’s life at risk, but let’s say she goes septic. The doctor tells the patient’s husband that this could well kill her if the pregnancy continues, but he doesn’t believe his wife is in enough jeopardy to merit an abortion. The situation gets worse over the coming days until the doctor finally decides to terminate the pregnancy, thus saving the woman’s life. The husband can then say to the doctor, “Clearly the abortion was not necessary because my wife lived. Now I am going to sue you for $10,000.” The doctor can never irrefutably prove that the woman would have died without the procedure, and therefore under this new law could be made to pay the fine as well as any legal costs incurred by the husband. Ireland had a similarly draconian abortion law which was changed after a young woman who was septic died, along with her fetus, because the doctors were afraid of legal repercussions should they intervene. Dr. Jones expects similar scenarios and loss of life to play out all over Texas because of SB 8. 

Many women suffer symptoms during pregnancy which, while not necessarily life threatening, are debilitating. Hyperemesis Gravidarum, or HG, is like morning sickness on steroids. Women suffering from HG are constantly nauseous and regularly throw up, making it pretty hard to be productive at work. Women with extreme HG vomit all through the day and night, sometimes for hours on end, and unlike morning sickness which usually abates after the first trimester, HG lasts for the whole nine months. This much vomiting can quickly lead to dehydration and malnutrition which can kill both mother and fetus if sufferers are not given intravenous electrolytes, fluids, and sustenance. The comedian Amy Schumer had severe HG, and documented her pregnancy in a 3-part HBO docuseries called “Expecting Amy.” Luckily Schumer is rich enough that she didn’t have to work with this horrifying condition, although she does take a few meetings and guests on a podcast through the course of the series. She has a waste basket beside her on all of these occasions, and has to stop often to throw up. Schumer mentions just before she goes in for a C-section in the final episode that she received almost 100 IVs over the course of her pregnancy. Now imagine a woman who has to go to work every day just to cover her bills, and you’ll see how having HG would make pregnancy for that woman impossible. Not only can she not take that much time off, she also almost certainly can’t afford the many hospital visits and IVs that she would need to keep herself and her baby alive. Abortions for women like this are no longer an option in Texas.

SB 8 makes no exceptions for fetal anomalies – gestational problems which sentence the child to a short and/or painful life, or to needing full-time care, or in extreme cases, to imminent death upon delivery. Amniotic fluid levels are regulated by the fetus’s kidneys, and too little of this fluid for extended periods can cause abnormal or incomplete development of the lungs which is called pulmonary hypoplasia. Babies with this condition suffocate immediately after they are born. Ultrasounds during pregnancy can tell parents if their child’s kidneys are not developing properly, affording them the opportunity to make an informed decision about whether or not to abort. Dr. Jones has dealt with many parents in this situation. Some decide to continue because they need to hold their child in their arms, to say hello and goodbye to it, and to experience the closure of a burial and of grieving with family and friends. Others choose to terminate the pregnancy because they feel the psychological stress of carrying such a child to term would be too great, or that it would be inhumane to put their newborn through the pain of suffocation. SB 8 takes that decision out of the parents’ hands.

Dr. Jones also makes the extremely salient point that banning abortions affords embryos and fetuses a greater right to life than anyone else in society. Suppose there is a person who will shortly die if they do not get a kidney transplant, and I am the only match. No one, and especially not the state, can make me undergo the operation. Banning abortion forces women to take heightened, and sometimes fatal, medical risks while also saddling them with the lifelong responsibility of parenthood, or the heartbreak and guilt which often follow having to adopt out a child you carried for nine months. Donating an organ, on the other hand, is an extremely safe procedure, the negative effects of which usually last only as long as the healing process. Yet despite this enormous disparity in dangers and costs, and even though a human life lies in the balance in both cases, I can still simply refuse to be a donor. The state says my right to bodily autonomy outweighs the ill patient’s right to life. Harvesting my organs when I die could well save several lives, but even then the government protects my right to make decisions about my own body, otherwise ticking the organ donor box on one’s driver’s license would be compulsory. Corpses in Texas are afforded more bodily autonomy than pregnant women, and SB 8 gives embryos and fetuses a legislated right to life greater than that afforded to anyone else.

Texas is an enormous state with very few abortion facilities. Dr. Jones says that most women in the state have to drive between five and eight hours to get to a clinic, and since the procedure has a 24-hour waiting period, women seeking abortions have to be able to take two days off work while securing a viable means of transportation to and from the facility. Texan women could visit a clinic in another state if they wanted an abortion after six weeks, but again that would necessitate them having a car or being able to afford public transportation, as well as having permission to take even more time off work. Dr. Jones makes it clear that women in her socio-economic group, herself included, could work around SB 8 by going out of state. Poor women and many women of colour who live from paycheque to paycheque have neither the transportation nor financial means to exercise this option, and thus will be disproportionately affected by this bill. Those who can least afford to have children are the very ones being forced by the state to do so.

 All of which leads to the question of what will happen to these children once they are here? Has Texas put extra child services and supports in place to help these unwanted children thrive after they are born? Have they opened more orphanages or enhanced the child tax credit? Have they done anything to ensure that these kids will have decent lives and be afforded every opportunity to succeed as they grow? The short answer is no, of course they haven’t. I once read a quote from a Catholic nun who has spent her entire working life in a church orphanage. She simply said, “These people are not pro-life, they are pro-birth.” Preach, Sister! It breaks my heart to think of the hardships so many of these children are going to face.

The Texas legislature passed an unlicensed gun carry law the same day they passed SB 8. This new law makes it legal for Texas residents 21 and older to open carry guns regardless of whether they have a license or any firearms training. Adults can now walk with impunity into any mall or church or school with a loaded gun on their belt. The American Law Library reports that between police, judicial, and medical costs, gun violence costs the state of Texas some $16.6 billion dollars annually, and that on average it experiences over 3,353 gun-related deaths per year. Greg Abbott and his cronies repeatedly claimed that they needed to pass SB 8 to save lives, and yet that very same day they made it infinitely easier for Texans to kill each other. Either the Texas legislature believes that the lives of the unborn are indeed more important than any others, or they passed both these laws as a calculated ploy to shore up support from their base. I would bet almost anything that the latter explanation is the true one.

Dr. Jones was born and raised in small town Texas, and firmly believed for all of her formative years that abortion was murder. After spending over a decade as a practicing OB/GYN, however, she now believes that abortion is neutral. She says, “It’s not good, and it’s not bad. Abortion just is. It just is. It just IS.” Roe v. Wade affords American women the legal right to terminate their pregnancies. SB 8, and other state mandates of the same ilk, make an end run around that right, and thus inevitably produce the same tragic outcome – women start dying from botched back-room or self-administered abortions. No law has or can stop the practice because, “Abortion just is.” I have heard supporters of bills like SB 8 say that all they want to do is save the lives of the unborn, and that the fact that only girls and women are put in harm’s way by such legislation is simply coincidental. I find this claim extremely hard to believe. As Gloria Steinem once famously said, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” Abortion rights are a feminist issue. Canadian women should be alarmed, or at least aware, of the ever-advancing war on female reproductive rights and bodily autonomy spreading like a cancer throughout the U.S. right now. Not only do we share an enormous border with them, but we also consume massive amounts of American culture through their media. We need to stay vigilant to ensure their repressive and regressive polices do not creep up across the 49th parallel.

I’m Back, Baby!

The announcement of the third-wave lockdown this spring laid me very low – so low that I couldn’t find the energy to write. Since then I have received both of my shots, and the warm weather has allowed me to connect with people on a regular basis. Both of these things have buoyed my mood sufficiently that even though it may be that we will have to lockdown again due to the Delta variant (although I think not), I feel sufficiently revitalized to write again. 

The peculiar phenomenon of the antivaxxers is foremost in my mind these days, and the certainty and intractability of their stance has led me to an over-arching conclusion; I believe they have now morphed into a cult. They display a similar blind adherence to non-proven, non-sensical assertions as do cult members, spouting absurd theories about vaccines holding tracker chips, or making the patently ridiculous claim that the pandemic is a hoax. They also cling to their beliefs like cult members by maintaining a willful ignorance of anything that could undermine their position, such as the empirical fact that over 90% of those currently hospitalized with Covid-19 in the U.S. and Canada are unvaccinated. 

The most obvious explanation for the existence of so many antivaxxers and anti-maskers is that, as my father used to say, “The average person is an idiot.” While this is probably the main reason we are seeing so much opposition to reasonable measures, I believe there are two other factors which have heavily contributed to so many people falling into a pit of suspicion and disbelief. The first is the massive proliferation and ready availability of media, both mainstream and social. There were two instances in the past century when citizens in Canada and the U.S. had to pull together and make sacrifices for the greater good – the Depression and the Second World War. People’s basic kindness and collegiality were on massive display during both of these difficult times. My grandmother had two young girls at home and very little to spare in the 1930s, but my mother told me she none the less regularly gave food to passing hobos who otherwise could well have starved to death. I have read and seen enough about that terrible decade to know that she was far from alone in displaying such generosity. There were drives for materials needed for the war effort during WW II, and everybody willingly went without all kinds of things to ensure that the boys overseas had what they needed. Citizens understood that enjoying the many advantages of living in a free and civil society sometimes means making personal sacrifices, and they gladly did so without any thought of recognition or reward. Occasional dissenting voices were quickly and easily shamed into silence. 

Fast forward to 2020, where the disgruntled, selfish, and downright paranoid can access platforms in their bedrooms from which to anonymously disseminate their fear and craziness to an audience of millions, or in the case of Facebook billions, of others. It only makes sense that casting such a wide net is going to pull in a great number of similarly deluded people. The platform then becomes a meeting place where ridiculous ideas are not only promulgated, but also amplified. Add to that the mainstream media, which regularly panders to the audience by covering so-called “Twitter storms.” Such instances are generally less “storms” than a few disgruntled people spewing baseless nonsense, but even the most specious argument is given legitimacy when reported by established news outlets. These patently absurd theories and assertions then get repeated and retweeted, gaining credence as they circulate into the general public at lightening speed. 

Social media algorithms then compound the problem. Suppose a person who is generally level-headed and skeptical of conspiracy theories decides, purely out of curiosity, to see what the antivaxxers are on about. They go to Google and look up a few articles on the subject, which prompts Google’s algorithm to start offering them more and more information in this same vein. It doesn’t matter that none of the claims are proven or even plausible, their sheer volume over time begins to convince that otherwise sensible person that there must be something to them. I know three people who are refusing to get vaccinated, all of whom I thought were smart enough to understand the need, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had unknowingly been sucked into a social media antivaxxer rabbit hole.

Social media has also created a generation which communicates almost exclusively via technology. Their primary interactions with the world are through Instagram posts and tweets, and many are content to be in virtual relationships, blithely calling people they’ve never met in person their significant other. Having their most frequent and meaningful social interactions through the conduit of electronic devices has created a huge pool of individuals who have never learned the intricate yet crucial lessons of how to humanely negotiate face-to-face or large group interactions. They are also unaware of their inter-dependence with, and mutual responsibility to, other people. The enforced isolation of Covid lockdowns has only added to this problem. Many young people are saying that they don’t need the shots because even if they got the virus, they would almost certainly weather it with ease. While this is undoubtedly true, it demonstrates that they have no understanding of their larger obligation to those in society who are not so lucky. They don’t feel responsible to others because their experiences of community have ironically been forged in isolation.

The second contributor to the massive anti-vaccination movement is a basic misunderstanding of the difference between a right and a privilege. No one is arguing a person’s right to determine what happens to their own body (except those trying to shut down abortion access, which I will deal with at another time). You certainly have a right not to get the shots, not to wear a mask, not to wash your hands, and not to physically distance. The confusion comes when you assert that you also have the right to go into situations where your attendance is actually a privilege being afforded you by whomever owns the business or building you wish to enter, or by those who organized the event you wish to attend. These individuals are perfectly within their rights to express and maintain conditions which must be met before they grant you the privilege of coming inside, along the lines of, “No shirt, no shoes, no service.” Certainly you have a right to refuse vaccination, but that will preclude you from going into government service buildings. Don’t want to wear a mask – great. But understand that this means you could very well be denied access to a privately owned restaurant. You certainly can refuse to practice social distancing at an outdoor concert, just don’t be surprised if security asks you to leave.

I encountered a similar misunderstanding amongst students which I think is analogous. I always gave the kids a breakdown of my rules the first time their class came into the library at the beginning of the school year. One of the things I made clear was that if they wanted something from me, they needed to start their request with “May I…?” and not “Can I…?”, since the former is a way of asking for permission, while the latter is simple a way of establishing if one is physically able. It is the same with rights and privileges – you are able to refuse the shots and shun masks, but doing so will jeopardize whether you are then allowed to do certain things. I would also argue that while you do have a right to ignore Covid safety measures, you also might want to think about the rights of those around you. Surely my right to feel safe and not catch a potentially deadly disease is as legitimate as the right of antivaxxers and anti-maskers to flout public health recommendations. I guess it’s easier for them to ignore this inconvenient fact, and perhaps some are selfish enough that they simply don’t care if they infect someone else.

I saw a Toronto Star headline last week describing how people opposed to the governmental vaccine passport have begun picketing outside hospitals. This revelation was tremendously upsetting. It is beyond disappointing to realize that I live amongst people who are so unappreciative and self-serving as to interfere with the comings and goings of emergency rooms while simultaneously targeting the one segment of society which has heroically stepped up throughout the entirety of this trying and frightening time – health care professionals. It is both stupid to demonstrate outside of hospitals since the people inside had no say in passing the mandate, and unkind to make medical personnel run a gauntlet of derision and negativity just to get to work. They are already exhausted, traumatized, and demoralized after fighting this virus for the last year and a half, and one has to wonder how many will find having to wade through these ingrates the final stressor which forces them to walk away from medicine entirely. Doctors, and especially nurses, are already leaving in record numbers, and who can blame them?

I was feeling sad and helpless the day after reading about these latest protests when I went down to Toronto to have lunch with some family members. I am happy to report that this gathering produced two antidotes to my funk. The first came when one of my nephews informed me that his partner is pregnant and they are expecting their son next January. This would have been welcome news at any time, but was especially heartening given my hopeless mood. Life goes on. The second occurred after lunch when we made our way back to the apartment by way of the U. of T. downtown campus, my old stomping grounds. It was Labour Day weekend, and the quads were full of excited, expectant young people being dropped off at their dorms by beaming parents. There were groups of new students, all masked and practicing social distancing, roaming the grounds while chanting their college names. The air was rife with potential and new beginnings, and the general optimism in the air leeched into my depressed spirit as I walked, suffusing me with a sense of hope. I am frustrated and annoyed with the selfish individuals whose stupid decisions are extending this miserable pandemic, but I do understand that eventually we will get through it. In other words, I am in exactly the same emotional space as most rational people at the moment. We all just have to hang in there and try not to let the actions of a relatively small minority bring us down.

On And On

Yesterday I bumped into a friend from Millbrook who I hadn’t seen since the pandemic began last March. We did our motherly duties and caught up on how our respective children are doing, and then I asked her how she and her husband are making out. She replied, “Oh, you know. We’ve really had enough. We were doing okay until now, but this latest lockdown is kicking the shit out of us.” Tell me about it!

I am finding it difficult to find joy in anything right now. Take writing for example – a pursuit I generally absolutely love. I adore effectively communicating experiences, images, and feelings, perfecting a turn of phrase, and I particularly delight in finding exactly the right word for what I’m trying to express. English, of all the languages in the world, is unusually rich. It incorporates such a wide range of influences that for almost every term we use there are a multitude of related words which convey a similar, yet slightly different, meaning. Take the word bereft, for example. At its most basic level it refers to the experience of losing a loved one – orphans and widows are bereft. However, one could use words like grieving, melancholy, or upset in its place, and each of these would give a slightly altered feel to the sentence – grieving often indicates a public show of sorrow and loss, melancholy suggests a more private state, while upset connotes a broader range of perturbed emotions. 

I still love that I have all these options at my disposal, but I just don’t feel like using them. This latest lockdown has left me feeling bereft – bereft of interest and impetus, but happily not bereft of hope. I’ve had my first shot, as have most of the people I know in my generation. There are massive amounts of vaccine rolling in over the next month, it is getting more warm and sunny by the day, and Trudeau is confident that we will be able to travel within the country by the end of the summer, allowing me to visit my daughter in Victoria. These things all give me hope for the near future, but somehow they don’t ease the deep ennui I am experiencing at the moment, nor how enervated I feel as a consequence.

I watched a documentary earlier this week about the evolution of vaccines, and I took notes because it seemed like a good thing to write about. I realized as the week progressed, however, that I didn’t want to write about vaccines. For the first time since I began blogging last February, writing suddenly feels like a chore. Almost everything in my life right now feels onerous. I don’t want to clean my house, or weed my garden, or even brush my teeth. All of these things currently feel like poor substitutes for what I really want – my old life back.

This crisis is global, and I recognize that many people around the world are in a much more dire and precarious situation than I. I am retired and thus have a steady income which is not jeopardized by my staying home. I also reside in Canada, a country where the overwhelming majority of people are willing to temporarily sacrifice some personal liberties for the sake of the greater good. I have ample space to socially distance, as well as readily available clean water and soap with which to disinfect my hands. It would be ungrateful of me not to acknowledge these many advantages, but that doesn’t mean that I am not suffering in my own way.

I am feeling anxiety around the question of how long this is going to last. I worry about whether we will be able to reach herd immunity in light of the number of people who seem unwilling to get vaccinated. I am hopeful that many vaccine hesitant Canadians will come on board as more of us receive shots without serious side effects, but I am very concerned about the huge block of anti-vaxers in the U.S. Many of these people really believe that Covid-19 is a hoax, some even after they or someone they know has almost died from it. This is just the latest in a long line of instances throughout history when the betterment of society at large is hampered by the unproven yet deeply held beliefs of a relative minority. We remain at heart a credulous and easily frightened species despite our advanced evolution and technological achievements.

There is also the pressing concern of how things are going to play out in the medical professions at the end of the pandemic. Health care workers have had to endure and overcome crippling trauma and exhaustion over the last 14 months. Surely a lot of them will need to take extended sabbaticals when this crisis is over, and no doubt many will simply leave altogether. The excessive strain on the health care system will not let up as Covid-19 dies down, it will simply morph into hospitals desperately trying to catch up on delayed operations, and doctors’ offices having to deal with a flood of patients presenting with physical problems that they simply dealt with at home or ignored through the lockdowns. There will also be myriad mental health issues to address, as well as societal problems. The ongoing tragedy of widespread opioid addiction continues to rage out of control, not to mention the recent substantial upticks in both domestic violence and homelessness.  

Business and financial difficulties will arise concurrent with these other problems. A huge number of small companies went under because of Covid-19, and masses of people simply lost their livelihoods. Where does the venture capital necessary to start new businesses come from when, for over a year now, the federal government has paid out massive amounts of money to unemployed citizens from an ever shrinking tax reserve? How do you kick-start the global economy when so many countries are effectively broke? I really know very little about economics, and readily acknowledge that the answer to these questions are well out of my wheelhouse. We all just have to trust that governments will hire and listen to smart people who know how to pull us out of this mess, just as they did after the world wars.

The spread of an ever expanding number of variants has also got me on edge, and the situation in India is particularly dreadful. A Facebook friend recently put up a post concerning a woman’s experience when she called for technical support for her computer. As usual the man helping her was Indian, and at one point during the exchange she asked him exactly where he was in the country. He responded that he lived in Delhi, so she asked him how it was going there. He was quiet for a while and was clearly overcome with emotion when he replied that perhaps she would be better served by one of his colleagues. She said no, she was really interested in him and didn’t mind that he was upset. He then said, “I have lost ten people in the last ten days,” and then broke down. He gasped out through his sobs that he would transfer her to someone else, but she insisted that she wanted to stay on the line to offer whatever support she could. They silently kept the line open until he had collected himself, and then he helped her solve her technical problem.

This story effected me deeply. I felt extremely buoyed by the unquestioning patience and compassion of that woman. How wonderful that she offered to virtually stand by that poor grieving man thousands of miles away, and how touching and beautifully human that he accepted her offer. I was also very moved by the plight of that unfortunate man. Imagine having to brave the densely crowded streets of Delhi day after day with a highly effective yet invisible killer on the loose, and then having to contain both that fear and the extraordinary sorrow of losing so many people as you perform your job. Now expand the horror of that experience to millions, or possibly even tens of millions of people, and you’ll have a taste of the absolute hell this poor benighted country is going through right now. My heart just bleeds for them.

The unfolding tragedy in India and so many other third world nations, the isolation of my current situation, and the existential and future concerns related to the pandemic more generally are manifesting in my emotional, psychological, and physical self. I constantly feel like a raw nerve and cry at the drop of a hat – happy moments, sad moments, it matters not. Hell, I recently cried at a TV commercial! Psychologically, I am suffering bouts of anxiety which make it hard to relax and focus. This personal stress and the general feeling of unease floating in the ether are in turn manifesting in my body. My knees and elbows are unaccountably achey, and I’m experiencing intermittent, inexplicable pain and fatigue in various muscles. I regularly walk and do yoga to keep myself healthy and flexible, but the constant weight of the pandemic is still taking its toll. 

I am grieving generally for my previous life, and more specifically for unfettered contact with family and friends. I have not seen my Toronto family, including two of my siblings, since the Thanksgiving before last, and I miss them all terribly. There is a comfort in being with people you have known all your life which cannot be replicated or replaced. A few of my local friends and I have managed to regularly meet over the past year, but I have not had the pleasure of socializing with people in my extended circle for what seems like an eternity. I miss previously mundane things like meeting someone for coffee or lunch, and the joy of gathering at a celebratory party. Generally crowds make me nervous, but right now I’d pay a million bucks just to stroll confidently maskless through a throng at the mall.

The loss of being in a choir has cut me deeply as well. I looked forward to our Wednesday night rehearsals, not only because they punctuated my week, but also because they provided me with a welcome social gathering. I’ve made many friends in my seven years in the choir, and I miss their company. Studies have shown that singing with others produces an almost instantaneous camaraderie, and I acutely feel the lack of that fellowship. I also miss the joy of singing, and the satisfaction that comes from mastering a difficult piece. The choir board managed to cobble together some small group singing last fall, and our social committee has hosted three very fun Zoom trivia nights, but as welcome as these events were, I think its fair to say that we are all just pining to reconstitute into the 100 strong voices of The Peterborough Singers.

I don’t just miss making art, I also miss consuming it. I have patronized The Stratford Festival almost every summer for decades, generally taking in one musical and one Shakespearean play per visit, and I usually attend a National Ballet performance at least once a year. I buy tickets to every local arts event that interests me, and regularly go to concerts in Toronto, my two most recent being Depeche Mode and Justin Timberlake. The arts feed me in a way that nothing else can, and I feel saddened and diminished as a person because of their lack. I watch Great Performances on PBS, record musical specials and award shows, and regularly get Facebook posts from various arts organizations as well as the BBC, but these all pale in comparison to being present at a live production. Live performances are ethereal and fleeting by nature, and it is always a distinct and singular privilege to share in them, both as a performer and as an audience member. 

One thing that has helped enormously at this difficult time is technology. I have weekly video chats with my children, and more infrequent ones with members of my extended family. It is just wonderful to talk with them while looking at their familiar, much loved faces. I have also recently become more active on Facebook, hooking up with many new friends and posting more material. Anyone familiar with my writing knows that I have railed more than once about the many negatives of social media, but I have discovered that Facebook can be very beneficial if used properly. I do not click on any links provided by the platform, I do not believe anything posted from sources I don’t already know and trust, and I generally only share or repost things with a positive message. Facebook’s algorithms are programmed to provide users with more of whatever they show an interest in, so I figure if I keep putting up videos of adorable kittens and hilarious cartoons then that’s what I’ll get from FB in return. So far, this strategy has served me very well, and I regularly receive posts that are entertaining, uplifting, and/or funny. Nice!

Mankind has survived worse times than these. My own parents endured a decade long depression followed immediately by a protracted world war, and they both went on to live productive, relatively happy lives. I know I will get through this, I just hate this feeling of impotence while I wait. I also recognize the irony of writing about how I don’t feel like writing, but as I said, I also don’t feel like brushing my teeth and I’m still doing that. Some things are too important for one’s health – physical, emotional, or psychological – to be skipped. Writing, for me, is one of those things. Stay strong, my friends. This too shall pass.

Picture a Scientist

James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins won the Nobel prize in 1962 for their ground-breaking work in discovering the molecular structure and chemical makeup of DNA in 1953. Watson and Crick worked together at Cambridge, while Wilkins was at King’s College London where he worked with a woman named Rosalind Franklin. Franklin was the X-ray crystallographer whose 3D photo of a DNA strand revealed its iconic double-helix structure, thus providing essential information for Watson and Crick’s experiments. Franklin died four years before the prize was awarded, and Nobels are never given posthumously, but she was not even mentioned, let alone credited, in contemporary accounts of the discovery or in any of the three men’s acceptance speeches. It is highly likely that these omissions were due to her sex.

In 1973, a young and eager biology grad student named Nancy Hopkins found herself working in James Watson’s cancer research lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She greatly admired both Watson and Crick for obvious reasons, and was overjoyed to be doing science under Watson’s tutelage. She hadn’t been long in the job when Watson announced that Francis Crick was coming for a visit. Hopkins, like everyone else in the lab, was overjoyed to be meeting the other half of the respected duo. When the day finally arrived, Crick came unannounced into the lab and walked directly over to Hopkins who was looking into a microscope. He leaned over her, casually placed both his hands on her breasts, and said, “So, what are you doing here?” Hopkins was extremely surprised and flustered, and stood up immediately, stammering a reply to Crick’s query. She didn’t mentioned the incident to anyone at the time because, as she put it, she “didn’t want to embarrass Crick.”

These are just two examples of the sort of treatment women have historically endured in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. The PBS program NOVA recently aired an episode entitled “Picture a Scientist” featuring three female scientists, Hopkins included, and concentrating on their struggles to overcome sexism in their professions. Hopkins mentions her uncomfortable introduction to Crick in passing because such unwanted touching was common when she started out. As Hopkins aged and gained status and prestige at MIT, however, she eventually took on its many sexist practices.

In 1999 Hopkins became a tenured professor of biology at the institute. Her cancer research centred on zebra fish, and her new status emboldened her to ask for a larger lab. The facilities manager scoffed at her request, and a male colleague suggested that she wouldn’t be able to manage a bigger lab. Hopkins noticed that all of the tenured male biologists had much more room for their work, so she got a blueprint of the building and went around measuring her colleagues’ labs. When she thereby proved conclusively that her lab was indeed much smaller than those of her male peers, however, the man in charge refused to look at her findings. That was when Hopkins got mad.

The discrimination Hopkins faced took many forms – her laboratory was smaller and she had fewer specimens, her concerns and suggestions were dismissed by her department head, her experiments and findings were sometimes sabotaged or stolen, and not only did her male colleagues make more than her, but they were also much more likely to receive promotions. She wrote a thoughtful and thorough letter enumerating these disparities, and decided to run it by an older female colleague she greatly respected before showing it to MIT’s president. Hopkins’s female colleague so related to the contents of the letter that she insisted on signing it herself, and suggested that they should approach the other women on staff to gain their support as well – an easy task considering that there were only 15 of them at the time. All of these women had added their names to the letter by the time Hopkins took it to administration. She told Charles Vost, the president at the time, that she and her female colleagues would like to do a scientific study of the problem, and he gave them his blessing, confident that the claims made in the letter were either non-existent or largely overblown.

Five years and countless hours later, Hopkins and her team had produced a report which changed the way many American scientific institutions now run. Their exhaustive study conclusively verified all of the disadvantages laid out in Hopkins’s initial letter and also made a good case for the necessity of decent childcare on campus, as many excellent female staff members had left the faculty because it was not offered. Vost was shocked by the study’s conclusions. He truly thought his school was an absolute meritocracy, and was sadden to see irrefutable evidence to the contrary. He considered the report for a few days before responding, and then promptly began to make institutional changes. MIT started admitting equal numbers of male and female students, it upped the pay of female staff and made sure they had equal opportunities for advancement, and opened an onsite daycare facility. Hopkins recently retired after a successful 40 year career, and her only regret is that she had to devote so much time to the study – time she would much rather have spent teaching and doing lab work. She just wanted to be a scientist who could give her full attention to her calling, like her male counterparts.

Jane Willenbring has a Ph.D. in earth sciences and is an associate professor at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego. She was overjoyed as a young grad student some twenty years ago to land a coveted spot on a team researching glaciers in Antarctica led by Dave Marchant, a scientist so respected that there is an Antarctic glacier named after him. Willenbring was enthusiastic and eager to please as the fieldwork began, but it wasn’t long before Marchant’s misogynistic abuse took the wind out of her sails. He started by regularly calling her “slut,” then “whore,” and finally “cunt.” Then the physical assaults began – at one point he pushed her down a pile of loose rocks, and he would regularly throw small stones at her as she was peeing. There are no bushes or trees to hide behind when relieving yourself in Antartica, meaning there was no place for Willenbring to shelter from Marchant’s harassment. It got so bad that she almost completely stopped drinking water altogether, which led her to develop a horrible, bloody urinary tract infection which periodically flares up to this day.

Willenbring silently put up with Marchant’s ill-treatment at the time, and didn’t say a thing about it until 17 years after she returned. On that day she brought her 3-year-old daughter into the lab with her, and her little girl was so impressed with her mommy, all decked out in her lab gear and goggles, that she proudly proclaimed that she too wanted to be a scientist. Willenbring despaired at the idea of her daughter facing the kind of sexist abuse she had endured, and so she wrote an official complaint against Marchant and presented it to his employer, Boston University. The university suspended Marchant for three years when the other scientists who had accompanied Marchant and Willenbring in the field corroborated her story. Less than two years later Robert Brown, who had been provost at MIT when Nancy Hopkins presented her study, became president of Boston University. Brown took the lesson he’d learned at MIT about the undeniable existence of systemic sexism in institutions of higher learning, and immediately fired Marchant. The Marchant glacier received a new name a few months later.

Adam Lewis is one of the scientists who witnessed Willenbring’s abuse in Antarctica. He has since come to regret not standing up for her, but insists that he thought she was okay since she never complained or even acknowledged her ill-treatment at the time. He has come to understand, with Willenbring’s help, that such responses weren’t even an option. Marchant was in charge of the study while also being a well-connected and highly respected member of the scientific community at large. He held not only the trajectory, but the very existence of Willenbring’s future career in his hands. The power dynamic was such that Willenbring would have been jeopardizing her chances of continuing as a scientist had she stood up to him. 

One scene in the documentary features Lewis and Willenbring having a conversation about sexism in the sciences. Lewis tells the story of something he saw at a scientific conference when the participants had gathered at a bar after the day’s meetings. There was an older man who was making the rounds of all the young women in the room, offering his room key to each of them in turn. Lewis comments on how impressed he was with these women when, one after another, they each politely refused his offer. Willenbring responds with an explanation of the deeper implications of this sort of exchange for the women involved. Women who say no to powerful connected men risk facing substantial problems and obstacles when they later apply for funding, advancement, or tenure. On the other hand, if a woman does take a man up on such an offer, or even has a private drink with him to discuss her work, then achievements she may later claim in her field are forever tainted with the suspicion that she slept her way to success. This particular dilemma is not contained to STEM disciplines, but exists for women in pretty well every profession – a fact attested to in countless testimonials from the Me Too and Time’s Up movements. 

The final woman featured in the documentary is Raychelle Burks, a Ph.D. in chemistry and associate professor at St. Edward University in Austin, Texas. Burks is a woman of colour and consequently faces even more discrimination in her profession than her white female counterparts. Burks succinctly sums up her work experience thus, 

“You get used to being underestimated. You get used to being treated a bit shabbily. People can insult us to our face with inappropriate language and derogatory terminology, and we’re the ones who are supposed to be respectful and civil. You get used to being invisible in the sciences, but then you’re hyper-visual because people are like, ‘Why are you here?!’“

Female professors in the sciences are often mistaken for technicians, but Burks was the only one in the documentary who has been mistaken for a custodian, and who has been pointedly asked why she was in the building at all. She has been told to straighten her hair to look more “professional,” and since only one black woman has ever won a Nobel Prize in science (as opposed to 616 men and 19 white women), she has had virtually no one in her field to look up to. Burks hosts a YouTube show about chemistry and speaks at any conference that will have her in an attempt to be a role model to young black girls interested in science. I quite admired her tenacity and optimism despite what appeared to be an often demoralizing work situation.

It’s obviously not the case that all men in STEM fields are raging sexists. Social scientists suspect that many, if not most of them, are acting on an unconscious societal bias, and a few years ago they came up with a clever experiment to test this theory. They created a fictitious resume for someone supposedly interested in becoming a lab manager, and then sent it out to male science professors all over the country. The covering letter asked if the men could please weigh in on whether this person looked like a good candidate for the job. The resumes were absolutely identical except that one had a woman’s name at the top, and the other had a man’s. Researchers compiled the professor’s responses and found that most of the time the female applicant was rated to be less competent, was deemed less likely to be hired or mentored, and would consistently be offered a lower starting salary. This experiment, along with the irrefutable evidence presented in the MIT study, prove the “hard baked” nature of sexist biases in the professional and academic worlds of science and technology.

Many women in the film also commented on what’s called the leaky pipeline. High schools and universities are providing increasing enticements and opportunities for girls and women in STEM, filling the pipeline. It is empirically the case, however, that increasing numbers of females drop out as they move up the academic ladder. 50% of STEM bachelor degrees are given to women, but only 44% of masters, 41% of Ph.D.’s, and 36% of post-doctorates are awarded to females. In the end, only 29% of those professionally employed in STEM disciplines are women. The most likely reason for these numbers is sexual harassment. Experts in the documentary estimate that only about 10% of this harassment takes the form of sexual touching or inappropriate language, with the other 90% being made up of things like women being stigmatized for taking family leave, constantly having their competence questioned, not receiving credit where it’s due, being ignored at meetings, and receiving inappropriate e-mails or purposely being left out of professional e-mail chains. These subtle but constant slights and omissions have a cumulative exhausting and demoralizing effect on the women who bear them, and it’s no surprise that many eventually throw in the towel. All three women featured in this documentary commented on how sapping and dispiriting this situation is, and confessed that they have on more than one occasion considered leaving their professions as a result. 

Watching this documentary inspired me to do some research on the distribution of prizes and medals awarded to men vs. women in all STEM fields. According to Areppim, a Swiss data management company which compiles and lists such information, the disparities are depressing. I have already mentioned some of the Nobel Prize numbers, but here is a more specific breakdown: in physiology or medicine women have won 5.4% of the prizes, in chemistry 3.8%, and in physics a paltry 2.9%. A mere 3 women have every won the Turing Award, the highest accolade in computer science, and one lone woman has been given the Fields Medal for mathematics. 

There is a long, explanatory note under the charts displaying these numbers on the Areppim site containing information which is highly relevant here. It says, 

“In several cases, for instance in the computer science field, it is widely conceded that female scientists made decisive contributions that have been typically credited to their bosses, the more conspicuous male contributors. Also some Nobel prizes have triggered harsh controversy for reasons of outright ignoring indispensable breakthroughs by female contributors.”

This last sentence immediately brought to mind Rosalind Franklin and her crucial yet completely overlooked contribution to the discovery of DNA. The concluding sentiment in this excerpt sums up not only how women have been historically overlooked and undervalued in STEM disciplines, but in most almost every other profession as well.

“The unbalanced split of the awards, rather than portraying the genuine talents of the genders, turns out to be a revealer of the workings of our society, namely of the process by which value judgments are produced in male dominated power structures.”

Just think of all the amazing discoveries that have been missed because 50% of the population has been either flatly barred, or more recently systemically discouraged, from pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Let’s hope that the current trend of progressively more women entering and surviving in these fields continues. Mankind can only benefit from such a course. 

What Price Technology?

Technology is a wonderful thing. You can find out almost anything in a matter of seconds, from the name of a familiar actor to the atomic weight of plutonium. I have a friend who recently underwent a heart procedure which in the past would have necessitated weeks of recovery and would have left her with an ugly zipper scar running the length of her sternum. Thanks to laparoscopic techniques, however, she was out walking a mere six days after the surgery, and will only bear some small, extremely discreet scars on her upper thighs as a result. Electric cars are becoming more widespread by the day, and Covid-19 is being fought at the genetic level.

It is easy to get swept up in the wonderful advances and conveniences afforded by technology, but we must be cognizant and somewhat wary of the price being paid for its frequently unregulated proliferation throughout society. The rise of cell phones, apps, and social media are a good place to start a cost-benefit analysis of these ever-accelerating developments and platforms.

Video chatting has been an absolute blessing throughout the pandemic. I use it regularly to communicate with distant family members, and just being able to see their faces has proven a soothing balm for my anxiety and loneliness during this difficult time. We need to be aware, however, that there is a darker side to this technology which people are not talking about. Putting your face on the web means it will be picked up and stored in several databases. It is estimated that Facebook alone has a growing cache of over 100 million faces. Facebook users agree to allow the company to store their images and personal information when they accept the terms and conditions of the site, with similar contracts being employed by every other social media and internet platform. 

The problem with this technology arises when these stored pictures are matched against those of others by facial recognition software. Imagine a robbery is filmed by a CCTV camera which clearly records the faces of both of the perpetrators. Now imagine law enforcement taking those images and comparing them to the millions of others stored and identified on a host of digital platforms. This might appear to be a welcome development – odds are good that police will catch more criminals when they have such an enormous pool to draw from, and they are much more likely to arrest the right person given how completely individual faces are. When we give digital companies permission to store our images and information, however, there are limits to how they may be used. Nowhere does it say that they may release our personal data or photos to the government or to law enforcement, making the use of facial recognition by these agencies highly suspect, if not downright illegal.

Luckily the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada is keeping a close watch on, and limiting the possibility of, such sweeping invasions of privacy. They write, “Of particular concern is the sharing of information with other agencies and governments, including law enforcement, with the risk of government tracking and surveillance without appropriate authorization, safeguards or oversight.” In other words, no agency can access a private citizen’s information without that person’s explicit consent. The Insurance Corp. of B.C. offered to help police identify participants in the 2011 Vancouver hockey riot by running facial recognition software on images from the riot and comparing them to pictures in their drivers licence database. The BC Privacy Commission ruled that while the company could use such technology to detect and prevent drivers licence fraud, they could not use their database to help police identify riot suspects because that is a purpose of which customers were not notified. 

Many European countries are being equally proscriptive, with the exception of The United Kingdom. For years now the U.K. has been a world leader in the number of CCTV cameras it has mounted in its streets, with the latest estimate being upwards of five million. You are being constantly filmed anytime you are outdoors in a large U.K. city. The London Metropolitan Police have recently acquired vans featuring cameras on the roof which are linked to computers inside that run facial recognition software in real time. I saw a documentary recently which featured the British civil liberties organization Big Brother Watch, one group amongst many which are extremely leery of allowing this technology to be used by law enforcement without strict oversight. One scene in the documentary shows members of the group standing at intersections where these vans are parked, handing out pamphlets to passers-by alerting them to the fact that they are being scanned.

At one point a gentleman determines he doesn’t want to be filmed and thus pulls his shirt up over his face as he passes the camera’s gaze. Three police officers immediately descend on him, badger him about his motives, then in the end give him a citation and fine for non-compliance before finally letting him go. In another instance a 14-year-old black boy is stopped because the system has flagged him as a person of interest. The police detain and question him on the street – this poor kid who was just minding his own business, walking home from school with his mates. The cops are clearly about to arrest him when word comes from the van that they’ve got the wrong guy, and the officers all back off without apology. At this point the boy is in tears. The civil liberties of the individuals in both these cases are clearly being flouted. The gentleman was perfectly within his rights to cover his face, and the boy shouldn’t have been stopped in the first place, let alone harassed and interrogated. The whole thing seemed chillingly reminiscent of V for Vendetta, or perhaps more famously 1984. The name Big Brother Watch could not be more apt.

It is not surprising that a black male was stopped. Existing face recognition software is overwhelmingly used by law enforcement to detain and harass people of colour, particularly in America. There is an affiliate of Amnesty International in New York City called Ban the Scan. The banner statement on their web page reads, “Facial recognition threatens the rights of Black and Brown people and could target other minority groups.” Evidently this technology has been used 22,000 times in New York City since 2017, is known to be inaccurate about 95% of the time when reading black faces, and has been shown to amplify racially discriminatory policing. It is basically the electronic equivalent of “stop and frisk”, a technique widely practiced in NYC wherein cops detain and search individuals on the suspicion that they may have a concealed weapon or could be about to commit a crime. These sorts of stops have been inordinately carried out on men of colour and have not led to any decrease in crime, but rather have only served to needlessly traumatize innocent people and to make black and brown communities even less likely to cooperate with authorities. 

The Ban the Scan page goes on to list case after case where black and Hispanic people have been hounded and intimidated based on facial recognition reports. The one that really caught my eye concerns a BLM organizer named Derrick Ingram. Dozens of riot police, police dogs, and a helicopter showed up outside Ingram’s door the day after a BLM rally last June. Ingram was alleged to have assaulted an officer, although it was later proved that he had simply shouted at a cop through his megaphone and hadn’t used any physical force whatsoever. The officers did not provide a warrant, they falsely claimed Ingram’s legal counsel was with them and then attempted to interrogate him from the corridor, and threatened to break his door in if he did not exit his apartment. Meanwhile wanted posters generated with Ingram’s private Instagram photos were plastered throughout his neighbourhood and on NYPD social media. It seems to me that what the cops were really doing was penalizing Ingram for peacefully protesting – a 1st Amendment right – in the hopes of discouraging him and others from doing so in the future. I find it unnerving that the authorities identified Ingram, found where he lived, and accessed his Instagram photos within hours of the rally. Facial recognition software could make privacy a thing of the past if not carefully monitored and applied. Do a little reading about its use in China if you want a real-life demonstration of how far-reaching and intrusive it can get.

Another aspect of advancing technology which needs discussion and oversight is the type of algorithms being used by tech companies. Social networks use algorithms as a way of sorting posts in a user’s feed based on relevancy, prioritizing the content a user sees by the likelihood they’ll actually want to see it. In other words, if you’ve shown interest in a particular subject in the past, then the algorithm will make sure that posts related to that topic will be front and centre on your feed in the future. The more you look into something, the more related posts the algorithm will provide. This is how people end up falling down conspiratorial rabbit holes. I’ve seen individuals who used to believe in QAnon explain that they bought into the rhetoric because their feeds were crammed with seemingly credible posts and sites that insisted Q’s theories were true. The sheer volume of corroboration without the presentation of any evidence to the contrary convinced them of things which are patently ridiculous and unbelievable, like that Tom Hanks is a cannibalistic, Satan worshipping pedophile. What!?

The tragic result of falling down such information wormholes is exemplified in the horrific story of Dylan Roof, the young man who calmly and unrepentantly killed nine black people in the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Roof began his descent innocently – he just wanted information about the George Zimmerman trial he kept hearing about in the news. Zimmerman is the white Florida man who killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, an innocent black youth whom Zimmerman deemed to be a threat. Zimmerman was found guilty, but after spending a mere 18 months in prison was released on appeal for insufficient evidence. As an aside, Zimmerman later sold the gun he’d used to kill Martin on Ebay for $250,000, making him only slightly less despicable than the lowlife who bought the gun and no doubt now proudly displays it in their extensive gun collection. Zimmerman is also currently suing the prosecutors in his trial for $100 million, claiming he was the victim of a conspiracy, along with malicious prosecution and defamation of character. He has named Martin’s parents in the suit as well, meaning the nightmare for this bereft and beleaguered family continues.

Roof next typed the words “black on white crime” into the search engine, and that’s when the floor fell out beneath him. The top Google results sent him to the website for the Council of Conservative Citizens, which offered page after page featuring what Roof referred to as “brutal black on white murders.” Google presented Roof with well-packaged propaganda – misinformation published by a group with a respectable-sounding name and a history of racist messaging. Roof immersed himself in white supremacist websites from that point on – sites that Google’s algorithm consistently put at the top of the page. Having algorithms that steer users exclusively toward content that confirms their likes, dislikes and biases is a boon for advertisers, which in turn increases the profits of the platform being used. Unfortunately, the narrow focus of these algorithms replace an information highway full of diverse perspectives with an open door to polarization and radicalization. Roof became convinced that the white race was in imminent danger, and the only solution he could see was a race war. He killed those nine innocent people in the hope that his actions would spark such a conflict. Roof is of course ultimately responsible for his heinous crimes, but surely Google and its tone-deaf algorithm is partly to blame. Google says it has recently changed its algorithm to be more attuned to racist dog whistles, but a recent NPR investigation found that searches for “black on white crime” continue to call up “multiple white supremacist websites.”

The final cost of unfettered technological advances I wish to discuss is being paid predominantly by teenage girls. There has been a 62% increase in self harm amongst girls aged 15 to 19 since 2009, and a whopping 189% increase among those aged 10 to 14. The suicide rates over this same period have been equally alarming, with an increase of 70% in the former group, and a heartbreaking 151% in the latter. I mentioned these terrifying numbers in a previous blog, but felt they were worth repeating. Gen Z teenagers (those born between the mid-to-late 90s and 2010) are living a social experiment in real time, and the results have been abysmal. They are much more anxious, fragile, depressed, and lonely than previous generations, they are risk aversive, and the rates at which they get drivers licenses or have romantic interactions are dropping rapidly. 

Gen Z girls in particular are suffering from the Instagram culture – their self-esteem often hinges on how many likes they do or do not receive, and they are being bombarded by carefully manipulated and highly staged photographs. These posed and artificial images serve to exacerbate the overwhelming concerns almost all teenage girls experience concerning the attractiveness and desirability of their changing faces and bodies, providing unreal exemplars they can never live up to. I have recently learned that the three social media platforms that girls use most – Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok – all come with beauty filters. Filters in their original iteration were fun and silly, allowing one to sport bunny ears or a dog’s flapping tongue. These beauty filters are much more insidious. The program first detects a face and then overlays it with an invisible facial template consisting of dozens of dots, like a topographical mesh. From there, any number of graphics can be attached to the mesh. Users can change their eye colour, take that pesky bump out of their nose, plump their lips, or make the two sides of their face perfectly symmetrical. In other words, they can digitally augment themselves to fit the standard perception of beauty, making it almost impossible for them to ever accept, let alone love, their own charming, unique imperfections. 

Artificial Intelligence, or AI, raises pressing concerns too numerous to explore here, but I did want to touch on an interesting article I read in The Verge magazine with the eye-catching title “Twitter taught Microsoft’s AI chatbot to be a racist asshole in less than a day.” In 2016 Microsoft unveiled Tay – a Twitter bot that the company described as an experiment in “conversational understanding,” claiming that the more people tweeted with Tay, the smarter it would get. Microsoft’s hope was that these interactions would be “casual and playful,” but the program was barely up and running before people started tweeting the bot with all sorts of misogynistic and racist remarks. In short order Tay was tweeting things like, “I fucking hate feminists and they should all die and burn in hell,” and, “Hitler was right. I hate the Jews.” Microsoft took Tay down just sixteen hours after its launch. AI, and all computer programs, will be skewed and flawed as long as humans build them, which is to say, always.

There are of course many other problems related to accelerated technology that I haven’t touched on here, but it’s clear that those on the cutting edge of digital innovation have no intention of slowing down. Facebook’s unofficial motto, after all, is “Move fast and break things.” Breaking things is not a problem, but attention must be paid when people are harmed in the process. We need to be aware of the often unexpected negative consequences of this speed, and to ensure that elected officials are providing sufficient oversight and enacting appropriate legislation where necessary. I also think it’s more important than ever, given the increased use of sorting algorithms, that we double-check the veracity of any facts we learn online. I follow the procedure I used to teach intermediate students for verifying a site’s credibility – I make sure I know when the information was posted, who posted it, and what their credentials are. If I cannot ascertain all three of these facts, then I close the site and move on to the next. Google and social media platforms are money making ventures with limited concern for content which is why they freely disseminate, and often prioritize, dangerous and hateful misinformation. The only way we can safeguard the truth of digital information is to be our own extremely discerning and consistently rigorous search engines.