Redefining racism

There’s a little semantic game that’s being played a lot these days, which seems to me worthy of analysis. (And since philosophers are so often of accusing to getting hung up on “semantic questions,” who better to comment on it?) It has become quite standard in many quarters to condemn Canadian society, along with all of its institutions, as being thoroughly and systematically racist. There is however an important ambiguity in the way that the term “racist” is being used, with critics often shifting back and forth between two quite different meanings of the term, in a way that vitiates the force of their criticism.

When most people hear the word “racism,” the way that they understand it is in terms that would have been familiar to civil rights activists of the 1960s. This type of racism was interpreted first and foremost as a derogatory attitude certain individuals have, that leads them to engage in discriminatory behaviour – treating some people better than others based on their racial characteristics.… Continue reading

The problem with “critical” studies

When I was an undergraduate, I believed that the prevalence of positivism in the social sciences – the idea of studying social phenomena in an “objective” or “value-free” manner – was one of the great evils in the world. Not only was it an illusion, but it was a harmful one, because beneath the guise of objectivity there lay a hidden agenda, namely, an interest in domination. Treating people as objects of study, rather than as subjects, was not politically neutral, because it generated a type of knowledge that just happened to be precisely of the sort that one would need in order to manipulate and control them. “Objective” social science, in other words, was not value-free at all, but rather a tool of oppression.

The alternative to this, warmly recommended at the time, would be a new form of social science, one that was explicitly guided by the “emancipatory” interest of human reason.… Continue reading

Why “homophobia” must be tolerated in a way that racism need not

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms prohibits discrimination based on the following characteristics:

15 (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

The Canadian Human Rights Act (HRA) goes a bit further, specifying a longer list of prohibited grounds for discrimination:

3 (1) For all purposes of this Act, the prohibited grounds of discrimination are race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, family status, genetic characteristics, disability and conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted or in respect of which a record suspension has been ordered.

It goes on to specify what constitutes a “discriminatory practice” (e.g.… Continue reading

On Iain M. Banks

I found it very poignant when Iain Banks announced — 4 years ago now — just a few months before his untimely death, that he had inoperable cancer. I resolved then to sit down and write the piece about his Culture novels that I’d been meaning to write forever. I did that in relatively short order. Publishing such a piece, however, proved somewhat more difficult!. Now, however, thanks to Sci Phi Journal, it is in print (here).

This is, by the way, the first half of the piece. The second half should be coming out in the new year.… Continue reading

Affirmative action for conservative academics?

Back in 2016, some students at Emory University were so traumatized by the appearance of pro-Trump slogans, written in chalk on various sidewalks on campus, that they called upon the administration to investigate the incident as one of “hate speech.” The thought that an entire university campus should constitute a safe space, in which students might be insulated from any expression of support for one of the two major U.S. political parties, struck many as being in tension with the ideal of the university as a forum for the open exchange of ideas. At the same time, the fact that the existence of Trump supporters in their midst could have so alarmed these students shows how unusual or rare the expression of political disagreement has already become at certain U.S. colleges. The fact is, you can search far and wide in American academia, without finding a single Trump supporter, or even a political conservative.… Continue reading

Turbans, paternalism, and the death of liberty

This is a quick afterthought on the piece I posted the other day about religiously-based exemptions, and also a response to some of the comments made on that piece. My central objective in that argument was simply to point out that many rules in our society already have exemptions built into them, in order to handle circumstances in which there is significant heterogeneity in the underlying interests. In some cases, just averaging them all together, or taking the vector sum, is not the best way of responding. This is particularly true in cases where a small minority has an interest (or assigns weight to an interest) quite divergent from that of the majority. In that case, it may make more sense to have a rule that applies in most cases, but then to grant an exemption for those in the minority. The example I gave was of speed limits, which have selective exemptions for emergency vehicles.… Continue reading

Asian community caught in crossfire!

I ride the subway in Toronto several times a week, and have done so for the past 10 years. I have seen a woman wearing a niqab precisely once. She was about 60-70 years old, and appeared to be taking her grandchildren to the museum. But do you know what I see a lot of? I see a lot of this:


This is in fact a big fashion trend:


Stores sell them in all sorts of colours and styles:


It is sad to think that people will no longer be allowed to wear surgical masks on the Montreal subway, or on buses anywhere in Quebec. I did not realize that it had become such a major social problem. Nevertheless, it seems to me that banning them is a bit of an overreaction on the part of the Couillard government.

Backgrounder here.… Continue reading

Singh, Sikhs, and turban exemptions

The other day I was sitting at my computer, writing an abstruse philosophy paper on an abstruse topic, when suddenly the very issue that I was discussing found its way into the headlines. The new leader of the NDP, Jagmeet Singh, was accused of failing to respect the boundary between religion and politics, on the grounds that, while in the Ontario legislature, he introduced a private member’s bill that would have granted an exemption for Sikhs from motorcycle helmet laws. (There was a lot of grousing coming from Quebec about the “ostentatious” religious symbolism of Singh’s mode of dress.) The example, I thought, was ill-chosen, because one need not appeal to any exotic religious concerns in order to support such accommodations, they follow rather straightforwardly from the liberal norm of equality. Or so I argue. This is what I was writing:


The impression that exemptions necessarily involve some violation of equality is, of course, encouraged by the popular view that treating people equally involves treating them all the same.… Continue reading

Absent-mindedness as dominance behaviour

My father told me a story once. Many years ago, he was a university professor. He taught history at St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan. He would drive his car to work, park it, and go teach his classes. But when it came time to go home, he would often find himself unable to remember where he had parked. University of Saskatchewan being one of those universities with vast parking lots extending out in all directions, he would be forced to wander through the lots looking for his car.

Life as a professor turned out to be much less than he had hoped it would be, on top of which he found himself embroiled in all sorts of acrimonious conflict with his colleagues. It got so bad that one day he just quit. He turned in his resignation, went out to the parking lot, searched around until he found his car, and drove home, never to return.… Continue reading

Boys, sex, books, video games

Most educators are aware that our society has been experiencing a decline in the amount of reading being done by boys. It might be a slight exaggeration to call it a “crisis of literacy,” but the phenomenon in both real and troubling. As the parent of a 12-year old boy and a 13-year old girl, I’ve been following this rather carefully over the past few years. I’ve also acquired much greater familiarity than anyone my age should with what’s going on in the YA (young adult) literature category. So here are a few observations on the subject.

Women make up the majority of readers of fiction, but in the youth category they also make up the majority of (successful) authors. Not only is there a great deal of YA literature being written by women, featuring female protagonists, but much of it also reflects what might be referred to as a “female sensibility.” As a result, it is becoming difficult to find books that will capture the imagination of young boys.… Continue reading