A Dangerously Radical Christmas

It’s a couple of days until Christmas, and this morning it struck me that there’s a bit of a glaring absence in most of our Christmas pageants.  I’m used to seeing kids dressed up in bedsheets and bathrobes and tinsel, portraying shepherds watching their sheep or angels singing hosannah or kings bringing gifts.   And we’ll be reminded, once again, that Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem at the whim of a far-off ruler, that wise men came following a star, that there was no room in the inn, and that a baby who would change the world was born in the humblest of surroundings.
But there’s one passage that strangely doesn’t seem to get recited by our kids, although it’s a regular part of the daily evening prayer in the Anglican tradition.  Perhaps it makes us a little uncomfortable.
It’s the bit where Mary’s cousin Elizabeth has just prophesied over her, and she’s contemplating how the world is about to change.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
    pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
    the callous rich were left out in the cold.
It’s at this point where she seems less ‘gentle Mary, meek and mild’ and more ‘Mary, radical anti-capitalist, Occupy Wall Street protesting, rabble-rousing activist.’  For some reason, in our art we usually portray Mary like this: a quiet, obedient girl calmly accepting the fate she has been given.

But frankly, in this passage she feels more like this to me:

In this Oct. 1, 2011 photo, police arrest a protester on New York's Brooklyn Bridge during Saturday's march by Occupy Wall Street. Protesters speaking out against corporate greed and other grievances attempted to walk over the bridge from Manhattan, resulting in the arrest of more than 700 during a tense confrontation with police. The majority of those arrested were given citations for disorderly conduct and were released, police said. (AP Photo/Stephanie Keith)

(AP Photo/Stephanie Keith)

A fierce-eyed protestor, calling out the corruption of power and the injustice of poverty, willing to risk everything to bring about a better world.

I’m not surprised we tend to choose the former imagery.  As a comfortable member of the middle class, I’m not sure I’m that keen on messages of social upheaval.  But if we’re going to tell ourselves the Christmas story, then I think we should let this bit back in, and I can’t escape the politically subversive content of Mary’s words.  What would a pageant look like that dramatized this scene?  I have a sneaky suspicion that it would look more Banksy than Botticelli.

In Flanders Fields…

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,

This poem resonates with me. I lived in Flanders for several years.  I walked daily through fields a few miles from the front line. Once I rode a bike from Mons, Belgium to Paris, following the line that the British Expeditionary Force took in their hectic retreat from the German onslaught during the first days of the War.   And as we rode, we passed countless roadside memorials and cemeteries, a silent witness to the conflict.

That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

Before we left Mons, we visited a museum.  Outside, the wall still bore bullet pockmarks from where deserters had been executed by the retreating forces.  A few young men, probably not much older than me at the time, had been shot for trying to flee the coming storm.

I know this landscape. I’ve walked across the battlefield at Verdun, the most disturbing place I have ever been, where it feels like the earth still bears the psychic scars of thousands of men dying in trenches and tunnels inches from one another in a desperate fight for a few metres of ground, where the trenches still criss-cross the fields, where the gun emplacement still lurk malevolently over the brow of the hill, and where an almost unimaginable number of bones are piled up in the ossuary.

I’ve stood at the Menin Gate and listened to “Last Post” being played, as it has been every night for nine decades.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

I like this poem.  I often don’t ‘get’ poetry, but the simple metre and clear imagery of Flanders Fields resonates with me, and catches my attention whenever it is read.

And yet, in recent years, I’ve found it more and more disturbing.  Because although its artistry is undeniable, although its call to action is hard to ignore, there is one critical element that worries me deeply.

It could have been written by a soldier on either side.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.

German and English soldiers both lived, fought, and died in Flanders.  “The dead” could refer to English, Canadian, South African, Indian, German, Austrian, Italian or Hungarian troops.

No deep Casus Belli is explored in this poem.  Its message is simply this:  We fought, and died, so you should fight and die too.  It is a message that could apply equally well to the belligerents in any armed conflict in all of human history.  It could just as well have been written in German, in Hungarian, in Turkish, calling the young men of those nations to commit themselves to ongoing warfare simply because their countrymen have died doing so.

If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

And so now I feel uneasy when I read it or hear it recited.  I cannot deny its cadence, its beauty or its emotional appeal.  But I worry that the core message of the most moving piece of art to come out of the First World War is simply this:

Humans have died.  Therefore, more humans must die.

No deeper reason than this is given.  We are fighting the enemy, therefore the enemy must be fought.We have a quarrel, therefore you must have a quarrel.  We have been killed, therefore you must kill.

And that’s a message I really don’t know what to do with.

Another year, another election

Our local Conservative candidate just came by to ask for my support, so I guess we’re in an election cycle again.  While these can be divisive and angry events, I still deeply believe in representative democracy, and I welcome the opportunity that the election season represents to discuss policy, leadership, and the kind of country we want to have.

I’m well aware that we’ve already had our first leadership debate and weeks of advertising, but so far I’ve chosen to ignore most of this activity.  Firstly, I’m a completely content cord-cutter, so I am rarely exposed to ‘push’ advertising.  The parties may be spending millions to promote their image and attack their opponents, but as far as I’m concerned this is completely wasted money.  My children, reared on Netflix, find it deeply strange that people tolerate a TV show being interrupted by a paid commercial, and I completely agree with them.   This perhaps is of the defining conflicts  of our age.  On one side we have commercial interests  trying to buy our eyeballs and our attention, and on the other we have all of us who are trying to maintain ownership and autonomy over our own mental environment.



So for that reason I happily embrace cord-cutting and ad-blocking, why I listen to CBC or change the channel the moment a commercial comes on, and why I find it deeply weird whenever I’m in a hotel lobby with a television blaring.  I want to choose what goes into my head: how, when, and in what format.

So the parties can continue to spend millions, and I’ll continue to be completely unaffected.  Because the conversation that the parties want to draw me into is not the one I want to have.  At this point, I’m not actually interested in the personality of the party leaders, but I want to use this moment to think about the kind of policies and leadership that I want for this country.  And it may well be that the really important issues that we need to be talking about aren’t the same as the ‘wedge’ issues that the parties will seize upon to distinguish themselves from their competition.

None of which is to imply that I don’t want to be informed, but I intend to start this election cycle figuring what truly matters first, and then do my own research on what the parties and candidates have to offer.


Seeking the Wild Goose

As a teenager, I grew up listening to the music of celtic rock band Iona.  One song in particular has stuck in my head ever since.

Here I stand, looking out to sea
Where a thousand souls have prayed
And a thousand lives were laid on the sand
Were laid on the sand

Years have passed, since they have died
And The Word shall last
And the Wild Goose shall fly
Shall fly

Here I stand, looking out to sea
And I say a prayer
That the Wild Goose will come to me
That the Wild Goose will come to me



Jutting out into the cold, stormy waters of the Northern Atlantic ocean off the coast of Scotland lies the tiny, rocky island of Iona.  To get there even today requires many hours of travel by train and ferry.  It was here, 15 centuries ago, that Saint Columba founded a tiny monastery.  And over the years, that tiny monastery became a center of gravity for the spread of the budding Christian faith.  It had none of the pomp, wealth, or power of Rome, and yet monks from Iona travelled in tiny boats over tumultuous seas to carry the message of the cross throughout Northern Europe.
When I was 19 I met a Christian girl from Finland who proudly told me how the gospel had been brought to her country from Iona more than a thousand years previously.  These early navigators chose to see the treacherous waters of the Atlantic and the North Sea not as insurmountable barriers, but as highways.
TrevorIonaMore than once, Viking raiding parties attacked the island, and on one occasion, as the song lyrics above note, the monastic population of the island was massacred on the beach at Martyrs bay.  A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to make my own pilgrimage to the island, and stand on the same beach that the martyrs died on, and that I heard sung about as a teenager.
It was a profound and holy moment.  But even more powerful, perhaps, is the fact that even today, more than a millennium later, there is still a Christian community on Iona.   The impact of those ancient saints is still being felt across Europe.  And I can still count myself as connected to the same family of faith.
One fascinating aspect of Celtic christianity is that they chose, it is said, to represent the holy spirit in their art not as a dove, but as a wild goose.  It intrigues me that they chose to symbolize the third member of the Trinity in this way.
I know that sometimes we have a desire to tame faith.  To organize it, put boundaries around it, make it safe and predictable. But faith, I have found, is often unpredictable.
I wonder if those Celtic monks chose to imagine the Holy Spirit as a wild goose as a result of their experiences on navigating the restless northern seas?  A missionary in Antioch, or Rome, or Constantinople, may have decided to walk to another city, and have a fair idea of the journey ahead of him, and the time it would take to arrive.  But a monk pushing a small, oil-soaked leather coracle off from the beach in Iona may have had little idea where the winds would take him; whether he would find safe harbour at the end of his voyage or whether he would be swept up in a terrible storm.  Perhaps he was forced to learn to trust in the unexpected guidance of the Holy Spirit?
 Before he put out into uncharted waters, the renowned navigator Saint Brendan is said to have prayed these words:
Shall I abandon, O King of mysteries, the soft comforts of home? Shall I turn my back on my native land, and turn my face towards the sea?
Shall I put myself wholly at your mercy, without silver, without a horse, without fame, without honor?
Shall I throw myself wholly upon You, without sword and shield, without food and drink, without a bed to lie on?
Shall I say farewell to my beautiful land, placing myself under Your yoke?
Shall I pour out my heart to You, confessing my manifold sins and begging forgiveness, tears streaming down my cheeks?
Shall I leave the prints of my knees on the sandy beach, a record of my final prayer in my native land?
Shall I then suffer every kind of wound that the sea can inflict?
Shall I take my tiny boat across the wide sparkling ocean?
O King of the Glorious Heaven, shall I go of my own choice upon the sea?

I have been blessed, over the years, to encounter communities that have taught me a little bit about this Wild Goose, the Holy Spirit.  As a teenager, I attended a Pentecostal summer camp, where profound, emotional encounters with the Holy Spirit were as commonplace as worship services that lasted until the early hours of the morning.  In my twenties, I was fortunate to be part of the Emerging church movement, as a loose-knit group of people tried to figure out new and creative ways of being Christ followers.  During trips to England, as well as visiting the island of Iona, we also managed to attend Greenbelt Festival, a fascinatingly diverse celebration of art, justice, and faith.  And a couple of years ago I heard of a similarly-intentioned festival here in North America, the appropriately named Wild Goose Festival.
On their website, they explain their name like this:
“Wild Goose” is a Celtic spirituality metaphor that evokes unpredictability, beauty, and grace.
We take inspiration from this concept, as well as many events such as GreenbeltBurning Manthe Iona Community and SXSW.
This year I’m going to make a pilgrimage to Hot Springs, North Carolina, to attend this festival for the first time.  And I’m looking forward to meeting passionate, different, disruptive, innovative, diverse people.  And maybe, maybe, I’ll hear the call of the Wild Goose once more.

Privacy and Duty

The last few months have been a tough time for internet security.

Recently, we’ve learned that a major computer manufacturer was found last week to be shipping laptops with malware and fake root certificates, compromising the secure communications of their customers.

We learned that hackers stole hundreds of millions of dollars from Russian banks.
And we learned that intelligence agencies may have hacked into a major SIM card manufacturer, putting the privacy of millions of people at risk.
Those of us in the IT world have a duty to respond to these incidents.
And I use the word duty very intentionally.  Most system administrators have, by nature of their work, a moral, ethical, contractual and legal obligation to protect client and company data.

For example, if they work for a law firm, then the Canadian Bar Association Code of Professional Conduct includes this section:

Maintaining Information in Confidence
1. The lawyer has a duty to hold in strict confidence all information concerning the business and affairs of the client acquired in the course of the professional relationship, and shall not divulge any such information except as expressly or impliedly authorized by the client, required by law or otherwise required by this Code.


To ‘hold information in strict confidence’, must apply every bit as much to electronic records and communications as any other type of information.

If you work for a company with a presence in Europe, you are bound by EU data legislation, which includes:

“Everyone has the right to the protection of personal data.”
Under EU law, personal data can only be gathered legally under strict conditions, for a legitimate purpose. Furthermore, persons or organisations which collect and manage your personal information must protect it from misuse and must respect certain rights of the data owners which are guaranteed by EU law.


In my career, I’ve often found myself working with health care data, and thus come under the jurisdiction of Ontario’s Personal Health Information Protection Act, which among other things states:

12.  (1)  A health information custodian shall take steps that are reasonable in the circumstances to ensure that personal health information in the custodian’s custody or control is protected against theft, loss and unauthorized use or disclosure and to ensure that the records containing the information are protected against unauthorized copying, modification or disposal.

And anyone working in the financial industry is likely to find themselves subject to a Code of Ethics such as this one from TD bank:
A. Protecting Customer Information
Customer information must be kept private and confidential.”
C. Protecting TD Information We must carefully protect the confidential and proprietary information to which we have access, and not disclose it to anyone outside of TD or use it without proper authorization, and then only for the proper performance of our duties. “

Nothing to Hide?

Occasionally, I’ve heard the suggestion that ‘those with nothing to fear have nothing to hide.’
In the light of these duties and obligations, this claim is, of course, absurd.  Not only do we in the IT industry have access and responsibility to large amounts of confidential information, we have a moral, ethical, contractual and legal obligation to keep it secure – to ‘hide’ it.
Because we can’t divine intent when our systems come under attack.  Whether it’s a criminal gang, a careless vendor, or a foreign intelligence agency, the attack vectors are the same, and our response must be the same: robustly and diligently protecting the systems and data that have been placed in our care.

A Rough Week for Security

2014 was a tough year for anyone responsible for systems security.  Heartbleed was uncovered in April, which led to some seriously panicky moments as we realised that some secure webservers had been accidentally leaking private information.  And then again later in the year we discovered the Shellshock vulnerability in many Unix systems, leading to yet more sleepless nights as I and countless other systems administrators rushed to patch our systems.

trevor_neoI did find a couple of silver linings in these events, though. Firstly, both of the vulnerabilities, although severe, were the result of genuine mistakes on the part of well meaning, under-resourced developers, who didn’t anticipate the consequences of some of their design decisions.  And secondly, I was intensely proud of how quickly the open source community rallied to provide diagnostic tools, patches, tests, and guides.  With a speed and efficiency that I’ve never seen in a large company, a bunch of unpaid volunteers provided the tools we needed to dig ourselves out of the mess.

2015, however, is so far going worse.  This week’s security flaws, specifically the ‘Superfish’ scandal (in which Lenovo deliberately sold laptops with a compromised root certificate purely so that third party software could inject ads into supposedly secure websites, and thus exposing millions of users to potential man-in-the-middle attacks), and the now-brewing ‘Privdog’ scandal (trust me, you’ll hear about this soon if you follow security blogs…), are the direct result of vendors choosing to violate the trust of consumers in the interests of chasing tiny increases in their profit margins.

I’m processing a number of emotions as I get up to speed on the implications of these security flaws.  Firstly, frustration – any new security weakness causes more work for me as I test our systems, evaluate our vulnerabilities, apply necessary patches, and communicate with clients and colleagues.

Secondly, anger.  I’m angry that vendors do not feel that they are bound by any particular obligation to provide their clients with the most secure systems possible, and that in both these cases they have deliberately violated protocols that have been developed over many years specifically to protect personal data from hackers, thieves, spies, corporate espionage, and other malicious actors.  I don’t know whether their underlying motivation was greed, malice, or simply stupidity, but whatever the cause, I’m deeply, deeply disappointed.  Not just with the companies, but with the specific individuals who chose to create flawed certificates, who chose to install them, who chose to bypass the very systems that we trust to keep us safe, and who chose to lie to consumers about it; telling them that this was ‘value added’ software, designed to ‘enhance their browsing experience’.

Thirdly, though, I’m grateful.  We wouldn’t have even known about these flaws without the stirling work of security researchers such as Filippo Valsorda.   Watching his twitter stream as the Superfish scandal unfolded was a surreal experience.  As far as I can tell, the man neither eats nor sleeps, he just effortlessly creates software, documentation, vulnerability testing code, and informative tweets, with a speed that leaves me not so much envious as awestruck.

And finally, I’m left with a sense of determination.  The whole world is connected now, and the Internet is every bit as critical to our global infrastructure as roads, shipping lanes, corporations, and governments. And it is a vital shared resource.  If it is to continue to flourish, continue to allow us to communicate, learn, conduct business, share and collaborate, then it must remain a robust, trustable system.  And although we have been sadly let down this week by systems vendors, the Internet is bigger than any one company.  And our collective need and motivation for it to be a trustable system is greater than the shortsighted greed of any number of individuals.

So I’ll go back to work tomorrow, and I’ll do my best to keep my client’s data secure, their systems running, their information flowing, and I’ll do so grateful for all the work of millions of other hard working developers, systems administrators, hardware designers, and other assorted geeks.


Here’s to the crazy ones.

Sound and Fury, Signifying Not as Much as it Could

Just watched The Hobbit/Battle of Five armies, and have fairly mixed feelings. On the one hand it’s a stunning technical and visual achievement, and a number of actors put on excellent performances, but on the other it’s let down by what I feel sure is a flawed screenplay.

I can’t yet put my finger exactly on what I find weak, but part of it is that the story doesn’t know what it’s trying to achieve. Tolkien, I believe, always wanted to explore the boundaries between the known and the safe on one hand, and the unknown, wild, and dangerous on the other. From the very earliest stories he wrote – I guess Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin and Earendil the Mariner, he wrote stories about ordinary characters encountering the extraordinary.

To a certain extent Jackson achieves this – Freeman plays an excellent Bilbo, thrust into a tale of dragons and elves and orcs, and yet in this, the third of an overly-stretched trilogy, Jackson seems to lose his way. It feels as if he’s trying to cram in every last CGI technique that he has left to him before he leaves the world of Middle Earth forever, and so rather than narrative arc or character development we’re presented with a never ending series of over-the-top battles. Bats swarm in the sky, man-bears jump from eagles, Elves defy the laws of physics, every warrior throws himself at his foe with no sense of self protection, huge set piece battles are frequently interrupted with individual interactions, while one assumes the armies in the background simply take a breather and wait for the main action to be resumed.

Bard alternates between acting as an excellent general and abandoning his post to chase down his children. We’re warned in dire tones of a ‘second army’ emerging from Gundabad, but they never really seem to show up.

Frankly, the whole thing leaves me longing for the Peter Jackson who created The Fellowship of the Ring. That movie also had its share of spectacle – Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog, and the battle of Dagorlad in the introduction, for example, but the characters and the source material were treated with more respect.

Perhaps the fundamental difference is this. In Fellowship, the spectacle served the narrative, but in Five Armies, the spectacle, the CGI, the endless fights, became an end in itself. In an era when computers allow us to portray pretty much anything we can dream up, the question for any movie maker becomes not what can we do, but what should we do?

Or to put it more simply – just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I’m left at the end of the movie hugely impressed with New Line Cinema’s props, casting, sound recording, scoring and visual effects, but uncertain as to what story they were actually trying to tell.

Cut Me Some Slack

This weekend I’ve been learning all over again what it means to be a complete beginner at something.  You see, I went out and bought a slackline.  If you’re ever wondering exactly what it must feel like to be a young toddler learning to walk for the very first time, then I can’t recommend this sport highly enough.

There’s something wonderfully refreshing about tackling an activity you’ve never tried before.  Every little achievement feels like a major triumph.  To be able to stand on the line for a few seconds feels amazing; to manage to take a step or two before falling off can lead to wild applause from the bystanders.  And it’s also very egalitarian; the 10 year old in our party was making progress every bit as fast as me.

It got me thinking about the nature of fitness.  I often hear people say that they ‘want to be fit’, without ever really unpacking what that means. At it’s most fundamental, fitness refers to the body’s ability to perform a task.  And I realise that I can be exceptionally fit in one area and completely unfit in another.  For example, the months and months of training that I put in in order to be able to run an ultramarathon did absolutely nothing to prepare me to walk across a two-inch wide strip of webbing strung between a couple of trees.   Nor does it improve my ability to, say, perform push ups or hit a golf ball.

So the concept of fitness obviously encompasses a number of physical abilities.  I think they could be broken down as follows:

  • Endurance.  The ability to perform a repetitive action without becoming fatigued.  My marathon-running friends like Patrick have this in spades.
  • Strength.  The ability to apply force to an object.  Typically, we runners don’t do so well on this.  Ask me to do bench-presses or pull-ups, and I’ll tire out pretty fast.
  • Flexibility.  To be able to move limbs through a wide range safely.  Again, running doesn’t really do much to improve this.  My Yoga poses leave a lot to be desired.
  • Balance.  The ability to control your center of gravity on an unstable surface.  As the slackline is teaching me, I may be able to get myself around a triathlon course, but taking two or three simple steps can be a daunting task when the surface you’re on is swaying, bobbing, and responding to your every move.
  • Technique.  The ability to perform an action correctly and efficiently.  Every sport requires a commitment to learning correct body mechanics.  If you run incorrectly, you will hurt yourself.  It’s as simple as that.  If you learn to swim correctly, you will glide through the water nearly effortlessly, and still outpace those around you who are spending far more effort than you are.

There are probably more that I haven’t thought of.  I’m sure that diet fits in here somehow as well.  If I can perform well athletically but I’m not giving my body the food it needs to recover quickly and maintain health for the long term, then I’m not sure that I can claim to be truly fit.   So perhaps the final element of fitness is humility, the ability to adopt a lifestyle of continuous learning.

Today I got another taste of that on the slackline.  Tomorrow, who knows, I may stay on it for a few seconds more!

Global Civics

Our world has changed dramatically.  The way we engage with each other must change too.

We are in the middle of one of the biggest social changes in all of human history; comparable to the dawn of agriculture.

For the first million years or so of human history, before the Neolithic revolution, we lived in small tribes of hunter-gatherers.  We had no large-scale social organization or institutions.    Everyone in the tribe knew everyone else – what their character was like, how much they contributed to the overall good of the community, who they were friends with, what they thought.

After the Neolithic revolution, everything changed.  Farming, probably the most important technological discovery ever, had a huge impact on the structure of human societies.  Agriculture led to a vastly higher population density, to fixed settlements, to division of labour, and to cities.

All of a sudden, we were living in groups bigger than we could keep track of.  No longer did we know personally all the people around us.  And so to manage this drastic psycho-social shift, we created new institutions and structures.

We created money to track the contributions of individuals to the shared economy.

We created laws to formalize what was acceptable behaviour in these new mega-communities.

We created courts, royal dynasties, and parliaments to organize these large groups of people.

And even our religious beliefs and systems changed.  Tribal shamans were replaced with formal priesthoods, with far-reaching social and political influence.

Eventually city-states grew into nation-states, and as they did so many people gave thought to what it meant to be a citizen.  Over time we developed the idea of a Social Contract, an agreement between the individual and the state.  The state provides stability, protection and  regulation, and the individual provides contributions of labour and  obedience to the laws and cultural norms of their country.

“civis romanus sum”

We may not talk about it much these days, but for centuries the exact relationship between the individual and the state has been a major topic of discussion.  The Latin word civis, or ‘citizen’ is the root of our words civil, civilized, civility, and so on.  A civil individual is one who understands his role and obligations towards a broader society.

Today, we live not just in connection with our local tribes, or our city, but with the whole world.  Each of us, daily, affects and is affected by people from around the planet.  This article can be read just as easily in Auckland as in Barrie.  The computer I’m writing it on was assembled in China.  In the news and in social media we can follow real-time updates from the sporting rivalry of the World Cup in Brazil or the horrific religious and ethnic violence in Iraq.

And so I believe we need a new, global, civics.  We need to be asking, and answering, these questions:

  • What does it mean to be a global citizen?
  • What are my responsibilities towards my co-inhabitants of this planet?
  • How do my economic and political choices affect those on the other side of the globe?
  • What positive, constructive steps can I take towards a healthier, more peaceful, more prosperous, more equitable global society?

Sometimes this world can be a depressing place.  When I read about the destruction of global ecosystems, the continued existence of concentration camps 60 years after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, or our failure to bring war criminals to justice, I can get despondent.  But I’m not the first to feel this way.  The prophet Jeremiah experienced his country being invaded, his culture nearly destroyed, and  his fellow countrymen forcibly relocated.  He would have had every right to hate the system he found himself under.

But instead, he chose hope.  Seek the peace and prosperity of the city you’ve been exiled to,” he told the survivors.  And I hope today that we can learn how to seek the peace and prosperity of the entire planet. In our purchase decisions, in our politics, even in our Twitter conversations, perhaps we can pioneer a truly civil way of interacting with each other.

Constructing Gender

I’ve been thinking a lot about gender recently.  In part this has been sparked by reading Margaret Farley’s excellent book Just Love.  Her work has  helped me realize two things.

  1. Gender permeates our thinking and speaking.
  2. Gender is harder to define than you might think.

We are forever talking about gender, and the differences between the sexes.

Books like “Men are from Mars…” become bestsellers.

Movies are categorized into ‘chick flicks’ and guy flicks.

Language itself is frequently gender specific.  In French, and in many other languages, objects are considered to be masculine or feminine, and referred to differently in each case.

Religions talk about gender a lot.  Many religions have codes outlining acceptable behaviour for men and women, and for the relationships between the two.  Even today, the Catholic church teaches that not only are women not permitted to be priests, they are not able to be – it is a kind of category error.  In the muslim world, there are strict rules regarding the participation of men and women in communal worship.

Gender-based violence is still a  huge problem in our society.  Perhaps 1 in 4 women in Canada have experienced some kind of sexual assault.

And yet despite this preoccupation with gender, I’m finding that it’s harder than you might think to define what we mean by the term.

When we talk about gender, when we talk about masculine and feminine, what exactly do we mean?

Maybe we mean the behavioural traits that are associated with one gender or another.   But what do we do if these vary from culture to culture?

Maybe we mean the physical characteristics that are associated with a gender.  But again, what if these overlap?  Men are said to be stronger athletes than women, but this is only true in the aggregate.  I will never run a triathlon as fast as Chrissie Wellington, however hard I train.

Perhaps we mean the social roles that men and women are expected to fill.  Nearly every society on earth divides task by gender, but interestingly they don’t always agree which tasks should be performed by which gender.

Perhaps when we’re talking about gender we’re simply talking about biology – the presence or absence of specific reproductive organs.  Although interestingly enough, these only start developing after a couple of months gestation, in response to certain genetic triggers.

So perhaps gender is all to do with genetics and chromosomes.  Fair enough, but even this runs into trouble when we start learning about the complex ways that humans and other animals determine gender.  Humans use X and Y chromosomes, other animals use Z, W, O chromosomes, or even environmental triggers such as temperature, to determine the gender of an infant.  Still other animals change gender during their lifetimes.   And even in humans, there are combinations of chromosomes and genes that lead to indeterminate gender.

So we’re left with this strange state of affairs – words that we all use, that we all assume have a common, shared meaning, and yet on closer inspection may hide some very complex realities.

I mean to consider the implications of these complexities in subsequent articles.