Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Debate Too Shallow

It is disheartening how we Canadians manage to turn interesting and important debates into spiteful squabbles. We toss emotion and hard core bias onto the path toward the clarity needed for understanding. 

The latest example is the foggy but vicious debate over ‘cultural appropriation.’

Cultural appropriation has been a vigorously debated issue worldwide for decades. It erupted again in Canada earlier this year in the writing community and cost some people their jobs.

Cultural appropriation can be defined as using another culture’s intellectual property, knowledge, expressions or artifacts for your own purposes.

One side of the debate argues that it is wrong for a writer to write about experiences from another culture. The argument is that minority cultures should speak for themselves and not be seen through the eyes of a majority culture.

The opposite view is that writers should be free to write whatever they like, and that writing about different cultures can build knowledge and understanding of a minority.

This past spring Write magazine, the publication of the Writers’ Union of Canada, published an editorial defending cultural appropriation. It said there is nothing wrong with writers incorporating myths, oral histories, sacred practices and so forth from other cultures. The editorial also suggested an ‘Appropriation Prize’ for the best book by an author writing about people very different from herself or himself.

Controversy exploded on social media. The backlash, likely intensified by the suggestion of an Appropriation Prize, forced the Write editor to resign. The editor of The Walrus magazine also was forced out because he tweeted his support for the Write article. The managing editor of CBC’s The National news program was reassigned for sending a supporting tweet.

What should have been an intelligent debate was turned obtuse by runaway political correctness. Outrage took the place of clear-headed thinking.

Thoughtful discussion could have shown how cultural appropriation can indeed be racist and hurtful, but how it also can help us to understand and accept other cultures.

Back in the 1950s white radio stations refused to play what they considered ‘race music.’ This was the rock n’ roll music of black artists such as Chuck Berry. When that music was appropriated by white guys like Bill Haley and Elvis Presley it became sensationally popular.

Certainly those white folks benefitted financially and otherwise by appropriating the music of black people. However, that music helped to build understanding and acceptance of black culture.

A current Canadian example is found in the controversy surrounding Joseph Boyden, author of best sellers Three Day Road, Through Black Spruce and The Orenda.
Boyden is an excellent writer who has achieved much success. However, there has been criticism that his success results from cultural appropriation – taking Indigenous stories and experiences for his own gain.

Much of his success came from using Indigenous history and stories.  One side of the debate says this is wrong because he is a white guy writing about native people from a white perspective. The other view is: so what, he is helping to bridge the gap between the Indigenous community and the rest of Canadians.

Complicating this is Boyden’s claim to be an Indigenous person. He has won aboriginal writing prizes, and received other benefits based on his claim of Indigenous heritage.
He has no conclusive proof, however, that he has any Indigenous blood. Critics say that therefore he is simply a wannabe Indigenous who has received money and other rewards that should have gone to genuine Indigenous writers.

The Boyden case gives us one fairly easily reached conclusion about cultural appropriation: If you can’t conclusively prove you are part of a cultural group you shouldn’t promote your writing or art by saying or pretending you are.

Meanwhile, the latest general debate over cultural appropriation has been far too quick and shallow. It deserves deeper, more reasoned debate and discussion of important questions.

For instance, should minority cultures be walled off to ensure people from other cultures can’t get in? And, does walling off a culture in the name of protecting it actually lead to denial of equal rights, universal values and equal opportunities?
I, for one, would like to hear a broader, more reasoned discussion before coming to any conclusions.

Read From Shaman’s Rock:

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Personalities Versus The News

The era of the personality cult finally appears to be ended at CBC’s The National.

The daily 10 p.m. news program will replace, as expected, the saintly but boring Peter Mansbridge with four anchors. The hope is that the change brings a much overdue freshness to the failing newscast.

The Mansbridge personality cult ended earlier this summer with the man’s retirement as chief news anchor after 29 years. During those three decades The National’s credibility, and its audience, sank steadily.

The National viewership over the last year averaged 866,000 compared with 1.3 million for the CTV National News.

Alternating four anchors carries risks, but risks are needed for The National to have any hope of regaining its former stature. The National has been with us in one form or another since the early 1950s.

The chosen four all carry journalistic credentials, which in recent years CBC has considered less important than high profile personalities. Mansbridge had no serious journalistic qualifications while other stars such as Amanda Lang, Rex Murphy, Jian Ghomeshi and Evan Solomon, got themselves into pickles by forgetting that straight, unbiased reporting takes precedence over being seen as a star.

Both Adrienne Arsenault, the CBC’s senior correspondent, and Rosemary Barton, host of Power and Politics, have excellent journalistic credentials. Ian Hanomansing, often seen anchoring on CBC, and Andrew Chang, a CBC Vancouver local news anchor, have journalistic experience but are viewed more as presenters.

Chang will anchor from Vancouver, Barton from Ottawa and Arsenault and Hanomansing from Toronto. The CBC brass says the anchors will take turns reporting from the field.

CBC news chief Jennifer McGuire says The National will have more digital focus, whatever that means, plus more original journalism, insight and analysis. The
Toronto journalistic literati chimes in with other thoughts on what is needed: background, context, investigative reporting.

Those are all clichés and weary buzzwords that the journalism elite have been using for years.

The National, and most other news outfits, need a new journalism that tells people more besides something has happened. People know something happened immediately after it happens. They get it from hundreds of news sources: Twitter, Facebook, other Internet sources, radio, television, newspapers, word of mouth.

They need to know how what happened connects with their lives and what it says about the society in which they are living.

An important need for The National, and much of Canadian journalism in general, is diversity. Not diversity in such things as colour, nationality and sex. We are a reasonably advanced and tolerant society moving forward in understanding diversity in race and sexual orientation. What we are lacking is knowledge and understanding related to our geographic diversity.

Our national news media is not reporting enough on how people in the regions are living their lives. What are their successes, aspirations, troubles and fears? What are their stories and how do they relate to our overall society?

News media spending cutbacks have created huge black news holes across Canada. Knowledge and understanding of other regions are sinking like houses consumed by a Florida sinkhole.

Local news operations, notably the weekly newspapers, are covering their communities but national outfits such as news services, TV and radio networks and the larger dailies have cut back cross-country coverage. Too much news focus today is on the urban areas, particularly Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal. We need to know more about the lives of people in less urban areas such as Nelson, B.C., Biggar, Saskatchewan and Oromocto, New Brunswick.

Diversifying its anchor team is a good first step toward The National returning to prominence. Hopefully the anchors and their news teams will follow the simple rules for news gathering excellence: Be curious and ask simple questions without being obnoxious or putting yourself into the spotlight. Observe and report clearly without bias.

Those are the traits of the best journalists I have encountered. Interestingly, many of those have come from the Atlantic provinces where personality cults appear to be less important. Maritimers and Newfoundlanders have a “down home” way of recognizing a good story and knowing how to tell it.

The National could use a bit of that.


Thursday, August 3, 2017

Is Innovation Overrated?

This was to be the summer of innovation at the lake.

Long desired transformations would bring the place into the modern age. Wi-Fi cameras to monitor security and to keep an eye tuned for any damage from the latest storm. Electronic peeks from afar to see the depth of snow gathered on the roof.

Wi-Fi thermostats to turn up the heat so the place is cozy on arrival. And Wi-Fi controls to unlock doors for children et al who forget their cottage keys.

None of that innovation took place. Other things got in the way, like fixing a broken septic pipe, and keeping roof gutters clear and water courses flowing freely in the record rains. And, of course, dealing with downed trees and wave-battered docks.

Instead of a summer of innovating, it was a summer of patching up.

As summer now shifts into autumn, a realization dawns. It is a light-bulb moment being experienced by more and more of North American society: Is modern day innovation overrated? Does it deserve the veneration we pile upon it?

Our society worships innovation and abhors maintenance. We treat innovation as an unquestionably important value like goodness and love.

That despite the fact that a far bigger chunk of our time is spent maintaining and fixing existing things than designing new things. There are studies that show 70 per cent of engineers work on overseeing and maintaining things and not inventing them.

Yet our society honours the inventor-innovators far more than fixer-maintainers. We celebrate Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Michael Dell and other white-collar wizards as heroes. We pay them the really big bucks, dress them in suits and ties and assign them higher social status. We see them as  artists who make our lives more efficient.

Meanwhile, the maintainers – the plumbers, electricians, mechanics and janitors – wear workaday clothes, earn less and generally have less social status. They keep our world humming but we consider their efforts run-of-the-mill work.

We have given innovation a venerable place on the altar of change. Seldom do we question hard an innovation’s real value - who it benefits, exactly how and at what cost?

For instance, studies have shown that the medical community often overestimates the benefits of disease-screening tests while underestimating their potential harm. It is an example of our tendency to put much hope and faith in innovations while not asking enough tough questions.

The world arms race is another example. Innovations in technology have made possible targeted kills instead of massive invasion or widespread bombing. Thousands of lives are saved through pinpoint strikes. Another result, however, is an ever-increasing arms race in which more countries try to develop or obtain more innovative weapons.

A more down home example comes from the American historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan. She has written that in the past couple hundred years technological change has shifted the burden of domestic labour from adult men and children to mothers and wives.

Washing machines and vacuum cleaners, she writes, “which promised to save labour, literally created more work for mother as cleanliness standards rose, leaving women perpetually unable to keep up.”

Politicians contribute much to sustaining the reverence for innovation. It is much easier to lure voters with the shiny and the new rather than the dull and practical. Announcement of a new bridge sells much better than repairing of an old, rusty one.

Also, one way to hold government budgets in check is to follow the ancient saying:  “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Much of North America’s infrastructure – roads, dams, bridges – is suffering from lack of preventive maintenance. Too much of the maintenance we see now is simply reactive – fixing something already broken.

There is a growing movement saying that society can be much better served by putting more emphasis on preventive maintenance and giving less  adulation to innovation.

Innovations at the lake, meanwhile, remain on hold. Maybe it’s better that way. We’ve gone years without the electronic wizardry and perhaps we are better off without it. Besides do we really need something else that needs to be maintained?