Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Saving technology from ourselves

One gorgeous Sunday afternoon while meandering around Kensington market after a hearty lunch of beef noodles at Swatow’s, we found ourselves standing in front of a corner store selling newly-arrived arts and crafts from Latin America. Beside it was a closed booth but the signs inside were obvious to the onlooker. Looking through the dust-covered glass wall of the store, one of the signs read, “Don’t use the computer,” and another bore the inscription, “Don’t patronize GMOs.” Inside was pit dark but the signs were luminous enough to read. There was also a printed page that referred to the Luddites, instantly betraying what the place really was, a not-so-surprising sanctuary for the anti-technologists on the street where vintage clothing and other personal paraphernalia are sold.

The Luddites, of course, alluded to the British textile workers who revolted against the changes brought by the Industrial Revolution in the early eighteenth century by destroying mechanized looms. New wide-framed automated looms were being introduced during that time, causing the loss of jobs for many skilled workers since the new machines could be operated by cheap and relatively unskilled labour. The Luddites responded to the change by machine-breaking which was later made a capital crime.

Henceforth, the term Luddite has been used derisively to describe anyone who opposes the advance of technology because of the cultural and socio-economic changes associated with it.

Technology has bred two diametrical opposites. One side stands for the argument that technology is enslaving and subjugating humanity, while the other maintains that technology is being used, under the pretext of progress, to subjugate everyone else.

Take the case of the Internet. Does it bring us closer as one global village, or are we prisoners of technology? The horrible images of the Iraqi invasion, for example, were displayed on our television sets or computer screens in real time, i.e., the events at the exact moment in time. We have become virtual participants in a deadly war.

On the other hand, on Tuesday, March 24, 2009, President Barack Obama of the United States, in an effort to rally the world behind the U.S. economic recovery plan, released for publication an op-ed to more than 30 major newspapers around the world, from Al Watan of the Gulf States to Yomiuri Shimbun of Japan. Not to mention that Obama’s appeal is already spread through all computer networks worldwide, available for everyone to read in just a matter of nanoseconds, from the grade-school child to the senior citizen in a convalescent home. At nighttime, Obama bumped off prime TV shows because he was speaking to the nation through all the major channels.

Only a few months ago, President Obama’s cordon sanitaire was debating the idea that their employer give up the use of his Blackberry for security reasons. Imagine Obama using Twitter in his cell phone to catch up with what’s happening not just around his close circle of confidantes and advisers, but perhaps around the world as well.

To the neo-Luddites, if it’s new they hate it. At first, it was biotechnology they feared and loathed. Now they have trained their sights on nanotechnology. They’re horrified to hear about the possibility of moving genes between species. The number of nanotech patents every year scares their wits to no end.

According to Jerry Mander, the famed author of the book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, with the Internet, biotechnology and nanotechnology have the potential to “redesign nature from the atomic level up.”

“With these technologies, nothing will be outside of corporate control. They will achieve the full realization of a bionic society,” Mander says.

Chet Bowers, a professor in Environmental Studies Department at the University of Oregon, fears that “computers are a colonizing technology.” Bowers warned that “computers profoundly alter how we think and inevitably reduce our ability to understand nature and cultures other than their own,” echoing Hans Moravec’s vision of the future in which people could download their consciousness into computers. Moravec, known for his work on robotics and artificial intelligence, predicted in his book Mind Children that robots will evolve into a new series of artificial species, starting around 2030-2040.

Technology will always be a significant item in the political agenda of nations. Both as a core element of the knowledge base of a country and as a factor in creating employment in production and research, technology no doubt is a powerful economic engine. But it’s not totally immune to society’s derision. It could be a cause for pollution, or unemployment when used to automate and rationalize production. It also creates controversies such as waste management, power stations, railway tracks and airport extensions, or genetically-engineered organisms, that engage clashes between public groups, governmental agencies and politicians, and their debates and opinions reverberate loudly throughout society. Take, for example, the debate on human reproductive cloning, which raises ethical concerns about manipulating genes that can be passed to our children. Do we have accountable and effective regulation of all human genetic technologies?

In 1969, Stephanie Mills, renowned ecology writer and activist, became famous when she announced as valedictorian of her class at Mills College in 1969 that the world was in such a bad shape that she would not have children. Mills was concerned about overpopulation and its effects on the environment and demanded that society adopt a “precautionary principle,” the notion that before any new development in science and technology can be used, it must be shown to have no negative impact.

We cannot dismiss either by sheer ignorance or stubborn resistance to change that the human race has in fact progressed a lot over the past one hundred years. Consider the longer life expectancies, higher standards of living, and cleaner environments. Naturally, we have to consider all of these with both eyes open, that despite all the progress we have achieved so far, there is still widespread hunger, ignorance, poverty and inequality among us.

To Theodore Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, progress around his wilderness home in Montana provoked his brilliant mind to start a bombing campaign from 1978 to 1995, killing three people and injuring more than 23. In his manifesto published by the New York Times, entitled Industrial Society and Its Future, Kazcynski argued that his bombings were extreme but necessary to attract attention to the erosion of human freedom brought about by modern technologies requiring large-scale organization.

Kazcynski concluded that more violent methods were the only solution to the problems of industrial civilization, that violence was the only way to bring down the techno-industrial system.

Interestingly, Kazcynski’s manifesto, which was produced on a manual typewriter without the benefit of a word processor or spell-checker, was virtually free of any spelling or grammatical lapses, according to writer Henry Holt. How many of us today, using a computer, would be able to construct a 35,000-word manifesto without any single grammatical or spelling error? But thanks to the modern computer, that is now possible.

Kazcynski today is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. In prison, he remembers the mountains and the woods and all the wild nature that surround his cabin in Montana. He said he was afraid he might lose those memories, but he doesn’t think they’re going to break his spirit.

There is no denying that the effective use of technology is essential in contemporary politics and U.S. President Obama is utilizing it to the hilt by deploying new communications media in fostering democratic debate and shaping the future of contemporary societies and culture. Obama is invigorating democracy by increasing the dissemination of critical and progressive ideas in what we may call cyberspace democracy. The downside, however, is overexposure and possible audience fatigue if Obama’s appearances on radio and television, on the Internet, Facebook or even Twitter, become like a boring mini-series. Too much exposure may also boomerang on Mr. Obama if the desired results of his communications blitz are not achieved.

Barack Obama may be perceived by the neo-Luddites as a witting tool of technology. Excessive reliance on computer technology to communicate his ideas and objectives for the nation may enhance the people’s synthetic intimacy with him, but in the end, everybody wants their president to touch their hearts and minds not through some sort of artificial medium.

The debate on the uses and abuses of technology will continue to persist as long as man continues to advance and conquer new horizons in the future. Progress is both intoxicating and addictive.

Human reproductive cloning is currently taboo and there could be a strict global moratorium on the release of GMOs into the environment. Nuclear arms might be totally frozen, although that’s wishful thinking. But advances in biotechnology can never be reversed and creation of nano-assemblers will continue until they could manufacture anything.

To heed the words of Stephanie Mills, "progress through innovation and technology must seriously address the relationship between individual choices and the fate of our species and others with which we share this earth."

Any blanket justification for the sake of progress is inadequate to cover all human concerns. In the Philippines, for example, the Bonifacio Monument, a testament to the country’s revolutionary leader who led Asia’s first national uprising against a European colonial power, is in danger of being desecrated to give way to modern transportation. The monument faces the risk of being imprisoned by the light rail ring of concrete and steel that is steadily going around it. Giant billboards around the monument have already diminished its stature and importance.

Hearing someone justify the vandalization of Bonifacio’s Monument in the name of progress would wake up the Luddites in each one of us and make us squirm and revolt. All that is needed is to redesign or reroute the loop of the light rail transit in order to preserve the integrity of the monument and its enduring symbol of our nation’s resistance against foreign invaders.

Where is technology when you need it to preserve an important relic of our history?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sundry events

One languorous afternoon, while browsing through new and old magazines in our cramped reading room upstairs, I recalled Felix Feneon’s Nouvelles en trios lignes, which can either mean “the news in three lines” or “novellas in three lines.” It was very tempting to impersonate Feneon, but duplicity can be an elusive ambition, the work of the master fictionist was not only original in form but also enigmatic as well as troubling in its implications.

What follows is a feeble attempt to condense the news or stories of the day in three lines. Those that exceed Feneon’s maximum only indicate my own inability, and also signify that Feneon, at least for me, is really difficult to clone.

Feneon’s three-line news items are obsessively chiselled and crafted, a precursor to Twitter’s epigrammatic 140 bytes or 20- to 30-word sentences.

Luc Sante, an author and professor at Bard College, wrote that Feneon’s work “heralds the age of mass media, via a sensibility formed by the cadences and symmetries of classical prose.” Feneon’s opus “forecasts a century of statistics, while foregrounding individual quotidian detail; invites speed of consumption while manifesting time-consuming labour of execution .... It is a dry bundle of small slivers of occurrence that lie beneath history, but it represents the whole world, with all its contradictions."


During a soccer match in Hilla, Iraq, between local rivals Sinjar and Buhayra, a player was fatally shot in the head by a fan as he was about to score a game-tying goal.

One hundred journalists killed in the Philippines since 1986. A hundred deaths meant to silence men and women whose calling was to serve the people’s right to know. A hundred deaths that expose as a mockery the government’s claims to being a democracy.

A woman was shot in the stomach by an arrow one afternoon as she was opening the trunk of her car while dropping off some elderly churchgoers at a nursing home in New York’s Bronx borough.

A bomb killed four South Korean tourists while posing for photographs near the ancient fortress city of Shiban – a UNESCO World Heritage site known as the “Manhattan of the Desert” because of its towering 16th century mud-brick buildings.

In Toronto, two muggers ambushed a 46-year-old man – all for a stick of lip balm. The muggers reached into the old man’s pants pocket and took the lip balm and keys. They also tried to take his wallet but fled before they could get it.

A woman walked into a hospital with a stab wound. She told the hospital staff she had been jogging when she bumped into someone who somehow inflicted the minor wound. She didn’t notice she was bleeding until later.

Many perpetrators of rape go unpunished in South Africa, but the situation is even worse for lesbian women who are being raped in an effort to cure them of their sexual orientation, a misguided practice called “corrective rape.”

Applications to spy agencies worldwide have been on the rise since 9/11 and aren’t slowing down. Over the past two years, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service had over 6,000 applications for 100 jobs as intelligence officers.

A recent University of California study found that when times get tough, women have fewer male babies. Researchers speculate pregnant women under stress have more premature births, and male foetuses are more likely to be born prematurely, so fewer of them survive.

German mathematician Adam Ries has been sent a letter demanding he pay long-overdue television and radio licence fees. The bill was sent to Ries’ last home address, a house he bought in 1525. Ries died in 1559, centuries before TV and radio were invented.

A Russian Air Force chief said that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has offered an island as a temporary base for strategic bombers. The Russian general also said Cuba may be used as a base for the aircraft.

Good news for Death Row. The U.S. recession has seen a startling fall in death sentences – down an amazing 60 per cent from 1998. Maryland, Montana and New Mexico are looking at dropping capital punishment altogether, not for moral reasons, but because capital cases take longer in court and involve more lawyers. An execution costs at least 70 per cent more than keeping a convict in prison.

A Whitehorse man convicted of drunk drinking and sentenced to 20 months in jail has asked the court for more time behind the bars. “Why couldn’t you just give me more, so I can get more counselling and more therapy?” he begged the court judge.

One in ten Americans takes an antidepressant of some sort, with women taking them at twice the rate of men. Some say it’s nice to see at least one growth industry in tough times; others just find it depressing.

Seeking to turn disaster into profit, Beichuan County officials in China have converted an earthquake-devastated area into a tourist spot. Visitors can go boating on the “quake lake,” a body of water created by flooding and landslides, visit a museum with an earthquake simulation, and see a school where children were buried by tons of concrete. Officials hit on the idea after 200,000 people visited the disaster zone during the Chinese New Year.

A restaurant review of Kalyvia, on the Danforth in Toronto: The cooking is solid, portions massive, the booze cheap, and the service snappy. Appetizers are strong: keftedakia (meatballs) are plump and juicy, tender octopus is sharp with lemon and oregano, and spanakopitas melt in the mouth. Moussaka is first-rate layers of waxy spuds, soft eggplant and allspice-scented beef under a rich, creamy roof of b├ęchamel. Only a lumberjack would have room for dessert.

Miki Cooper flew to Atlanta recently and grabbed a cab driven by Walter Fernandez. When she got out, she forgot to take a bag. Contents: three diamond rings, two diamond earrings and a Rolex watch. Cooper need not have worried. Fernandez turned up at her hotel with the bag and its contents. Cooper rewarded him with a kiss and US$200. Why didn’t Fernandez keep loot worth thousands? “It wasn’t mine,” he said.

After a ten-year battle, Dutch university student Teunius Tenbrook has won the right to attend lectures. A decade ago, Tenbrook was expelled from Erasmus University because of his unbearably smelly feet. Professors and students alike demanded that he not attend class owing to the smell; even the library barred him from reading there. But a court judge recently ruled: “The professors and other students will just have to hold their noses.”

To make shopkeepers remit sales taxes, the Armenian government has launched an ingenious remedy. Every sales bill will now carry a unique number. During monthly televised draws, the government will draw lucky receipt numbers and award customers between $20 and $20,000 in cash. A government spokesman expects the draws will have Armenians clamouring for sales receipts, forcing merchants to hand in sales tax.

Swedish art student Anna Odell faked insanity so well she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. First, she convinced police she was suicidal by appearing ready to jump off a bridge. At the hospital, eight staff had to restrain her while she kicked, screamed and spat. When she revealed that she was only making performance art for her degree, furious doctors discharged her. They’re threatening that Anna’s next performance may be in jail.

A Roman Catholic priest in Florida stands accused of stealing US$488,000, which he allegedly used to support his girlfriend (a church bookkeeper), take trips and indulge in gambling. The priest’s lawyer intends to prove that his client spent the money doing God’s work.

Flight attendants in India have been ordered to have a lively talk with pilots every half-hour to ensure they stay awake. The measure was sparked by recent incidents of airliners flying off their flight paths because pilots were dozing off. The aviation authority says this is not a problem and that it’s normal to get drowsy in cockpits.

Singer Janet Jackson has ballooned to an estimated 160 lbs. because she isn’t working and has too much time on her hands to eat ice cream and lard pie.

The house rented by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt has been the scene of “freaky” parties and has a “shocking past.” A feng shui expert suggests they cleanse the energy in the house.

An ad in Harper’s Magazine: “Women’s Welding Workshop in beautiful Taos, New Mexico. Learn to weld, forge and De-mystify metal!”

[Culled from an assortment of magazines and newspapers.]

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Reading between the lines

Last Sunday after hearing Mass at our local church in Toronto, my wife and I decided to buy some groceries we needed for the week, mostly vegetables, condiments, and a few pieces of chicken. We passed by a Filipino store where we used to pick up copies of Filipino community newspapers. The store is aptly named in Tagalog for the shock and awe one gets from either dining on the store’s home-cooked food floating in oil, or after hearing the prices of items on the shelves announced unasked by the significant other of the store owner.

For a metropolitan city like Toronto with only four major Canadian daily newspapers (two local papers and two national dailies), it is astonishing to find that no less than ten local newspapers serve the Filipino community. The Filipino population in Toronto is over 150,000, or just about a tiny four per cent of the whole city population.

Imagine reading the same stories more than ten times. Or even seeing the same faces in the news spread for an equal number of times. Or looking at ads from the same stores offering identical products from the Philippines (which nonetheless never fail to make us homesick), ads of doctors and dentists with photos of their ever-smiling and happy families, real estate agents selling houses we couldn’t afford to buy even before this recession, and beauty product ads that offer to give you a new face, literally. You would think that these would be more than enough to make you suffer from reading fatigue or media constipation. Yet, we keep on picking and reading them like there was no tomorrow. We’re just as excited and as animated each time to find out what’s going on in our community, or even to learn the latest depressing news from back home.

Does anyone wonder why we’re being overfed with the same stories every fortnight? How do these newspapers survive when they have to compete for the same handful of advertisers? Did I mention the newspapers are free? One Canadian national newspaper has reported huge losses due to the recession and is planning to lay off staff and cut back circulation. But no, not our resilient Filipino community newspapers, which seem recession-proof, possessed of some magical gift that Canadian newspapers don’t have and could perhaps learn a lesson or two from—this from their more enterprising little media cousins.

After a late and light lunch on Sunday afternoon late this winter, we scanned the pages of our community newspapers almost at the speed of light, but making sure we didn’t miss the latest scandal about our movie stars back home.

Interestingly enough, we found some stories that caught our picky, if not suspecting, minds.

There was this story about a new relief organization set up by very eager and enthusiastic members of our community whose purpose is to help those in the Philippines who have been devastated by poverty, hunger, disease, and natural calamities. Perhaps unaware that their acronym has already been taken by a Canadian association of retired persons, the leaders of the new organization decided to call the group after a delectable and luscious fish that typically adorns Filipino tables during fiestas. What could be more appropriate than a very juicy carp to spread some of its tender and fleshy succulence to people in need?

Judging by its mission statement, this new relief organization is a very ambitious and impressive effort. Except that well-established and reputable organizations like the International Red Cross and other international relief agencies and Philippine-based organizations espousing the same mission are already on the ground, and are far better equipped and funded. In addition, past experience in relief efforts speaks volumes about the trustworthiness and reliability of these established organizations and of their leaders. Word is out that the new group is holding a ball this month to raise money for their initial medical mission to the Philippines. We can only wish upon a star that they fully understand what they’re going into.

Then there is this story about a search launched by a community centre for a muse who embodies the accomplishment and confidence of a mature woman, yet someone who still maintains her good looks, someone who has “that certain oomph,” according to the organization’s spokesperson. Named after a beautiful and alluring Filipino actress in the fifties, the winner of the contest will receive a round-trip plane ticket to the Philippines, plus a TV appearance on the WowWowWee show in Manila.

This contest, plus the Filipino Singing Idol and the Debutantes’ Ball, both sponsored by the same organization, are just a few of the activities our young people in the community feel sorry for. In a dialogue called the State of the Filipino Union (SOFU), organized and led by young Filipino students in Toronto last February 26, 2009, our young people have made known their unhappy disconnect with the so-called cultural undertakings of their elders. Or perhaps, our young people are simply being overwhelmed by the robust energy of their elders for novelty and tackiness.

In another story, a community organization in the west end of Greater Toronto joyfully announced the approval of a financial grant from the federal government for their new project “to keep seniors happy in the community.” Some of the activities being planned are a musical play where seniors can showcase their artistic and singing talents (imagine a senior production of Hair or Grease), a weekend get-away for seniors (walking or camping in the woods, or better yet, mountain-climbing or skiing), sessions where seniors learn about coping skills, and working and mentoring together (“how to pursue an active post-retirement career in the age of recession,” perhaps). After going through these frenetic activities, let’s just pray that our seniors can still manage to walk on their infirm legs, if they have not been already impaired by arthritis.

A Gwillimbury barn in Newmarket, a city north of Toronto, was the scene of a reported cockfighting event participated in by a number of Filipinos. The cockpit was raided and closed by the police after receiving an anonymous call reporting animal cruelty in the barn. The owners, both Filipinos, were identified as the organizers of the event and were charged with keeping a betting house, keeping a cockpit, injuring or endangering other animals, plus two counts of causing unnecessary suffering.

Cockfighting is illegal in Canada, but there are rampant rumours that Filipinos are behind it. We call it “sabong” in the Philippines, and it is one of the country’s national sports. While there are illegal and legal cockfights in the Philippines, cockfighting has turned into a very lucrative form of gambling. Filipino boxing pound-for-pound great, Manny Pacquiao, has a cock called “Pac-Man,” rightfully named after his master pugilist's nickname in the boxing world.

“Juan Tejada law to be considered in Parliament” was headlined in one of the local newspapers. A sad typo error to end Filipino caregiver Juana Tejada’s personal struggle to fight an unbeatable disease, a pithy footnote to Juana’s undying effort to challenge Canada’s immigration law.

Juana Tejada recently passed away after battling with colon cancer, a medical condition used by Canada Immigration to justify denying her application for permanent residence after completing her two-year contract as a live-in caregiver. Confronted by swelling support from the community that called on the Canadian government to allow Juana to stay so she could realize her dying wish, the federal government eventually yielded and stayed the removal order.

Supporters of Juana Tejada continued to lobby the government to amend its immigration law by removing the requirement for live-in caregivers to pass another medical examination when they apply for permanent residence status, thus avoiding similar life-and-death situations such as Juana Tejada’s in the future.

From front and back, reading our local newspapers would seem a piece of cake with lots of gossip to chew. They provide some news, mostly Philippine-based; lots of entertainment, again, mainly Philippine-based; and a smattering of Toronto-based self-promotion that people appear to dig in not so much with alacrity as with Job’s tons of patience he could be Filipino. News and stories that could fit two or three community newspapers yet told by a dozen or so Watchmen—that is so Filipino. And yet, we look forward to reading the next issue each time.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

You are what you're not

A great mark usually has six universal attributes. It must be distinctive, not necessarily unique. It’s practical and works in every colour. Must be graphic, can communicate purely in visual terms. Simple in form, has only one idea, one gimmick. Has one message, expresses no more than one attribute. And it must be appropriate; its content ought to be right.

If we can only reduce one’s identity to a brand, then all we need is a marketing expert to point out its attributes. It would be a lot easier to market ourselves as a marketing brand.

But defining one’s identity is not an easy task because we have to consider one’s culture, and culture means many different things to many people. There could be as many definitions of culture as there are cultures in the world. The tiny ant, for instance, has as many as twelve thousand known species. And it is just an ant.

In this present age, where technology processes information instantaneously and faster than a stimulus travelling to the human brain, the universe we live in has been shrunk to a compact disk providing us with almost about everything, on all the places on this earth and their inhabitants, their cultures and lifestyles. As we learn other people’s cultures, we vicariously feel a sense of belonging with others. In sharing our own culture and our norms and values with others, we find our differences which, according to social anthropologists, actually shape our identity. Thus, we define what we are by what we are not.

Try commingling with others, especially with people from different cultures and backgrounds. You will find yourself different, and this difference is what makes your identity. In a multitude of races, whether you stand out or not in the crowd, you are what you are because of what you are not.

This probably explains the feeling of being lost among young Filipinos who were born or raised here in Canada. Being assimilated in a foreign culture, speaking and behaving like the foreigner that they are now compared to their parents whose Filipino roots remained indelibly embedded, they seem to confuse their notion of identity to their heritage. When they find that the culture, traditions and values that make up their historical past are somewhat second-rate or even in conflict with the foreign culture they have learned to embrace as their own, then they start to balk, and begin to doubt their true identity. Nothing is entirely wrong with this attitude. Young people are entitled to know their past and be skeptical. It’s part of growing up, the process of maturation that eventually will help them define who they are.

However, this attitude can also breed the temptation among our young people to perpetually blame their heritage and their ancestors for messing up. Some may also start questioning why their parents moved to Canada only to belittle their education by working in lowly jobs as nannies, cleaners or factory workers, without fully understanding that it was a step-up for their parents whose future in the Philippines would have been much dire had they decided to stay put.

Culture, being integral to a group’s sense of identity, is something learned and shared. As defined by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), culture is “the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of a society or a social group and that it encompasses in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs.”

The lack of knowledge, appreciation and understanding of one’s cultural background and the culture of others is often the cause of conflict and hate between people. In this age of globalization, cultural imperialism threatens cultural diversity, i.e., that there is one dominant culture that overpowers others and is perceived as advanced and superior.

This is best exemplified by the belief of many, led by the United States, that Western culture dominates all other cultures in the world today. Consider the impact of Hollywood, McDonald’s, and Disneyland. Cultural imperialism has raised fears that it will eventually lead to culture homogenization. Threatened by cultural imperialism, some cultural groups use the defence of their culture and tradition to justify some practices that are inimical or invidious to the rights of others, such as imposing the wearing of burqas by Muslim women everywhere or withholding Muslim women the right to education by their former Taliban rulers.

Social anthropologists started exploring concepts of identity at the time when concerns with ethnicity and social movements became fashionable in the 1970s. This came about following the trend in sociological thought in which the individual is affected by and contributes to the overall social context. Using a largely socio-historical approach, identity came to refer to qualities of sameness relative to a person’s connection to others and to a particular group of people.

Two almost opposite tendencies arose from this approach. One tendency views the sense of self and belonging to a collective group as a fixed constant, defined by objective criteria such as common ancestry and common biological characteristics. For instance, we identify ourselves as Filipinos based on our ancestral lineage from our Malay roots.

The second view construct’s one’s identity from the choice of certain characteristics, a decision predominantly political in nature. It questions the idea that identity is a natural given, characterized by fixed and objective criteria.

While these two approaches have been largely criticized, they still have an influence on the ways we perceive identity today. Even then, exploring one’s identity is not an easy task because identity is a virtual entity and it is impossible to define it empirically.

Last February 26, the Filipino Students’ Association of Toronto (FSAT) held a dialogue with their elders to discuss concerns that young Filipinos in Canada lack a cultural identity and of their alienation from the mainstream Canadian youth.

A strong consensus has emerged from the exchange of ideas that there is no definite formula for being a Filipino, that there is no single way to be a Filipino. This result only confirms the multicultural character of Canadian society, that after we take into account the diversity of cultures in Canada, it is easier for us to define our identity as the sum total of all the influences of this diversity on our ways of thinking, our values, our political choices, and our lifestyles.

Although we have not yet achieved that perfect state of multiculturalism, the fact that young Filipinos are still somehow lost in understanding the influence of their cultural mooring to their lives is enough evidence of the need to embrace and appreciate their heritage, which is one of the objectives of Canada’s policy of promoting multiculturalism along with the preservation of the cultural heritage of its immigrant-citizens.

Increased global migration has placed diverse practices of different cultures almost next to one another. Countries like Canada, Great Britain and the United States, although with differing emphasis on integration of their immigrant populations, have recognized the importance of cultural heritage. Whether it is a mosaic society or a melting pot that is desired, a policy of multiculturalism helps in the integration of immigrants into the fabric of their new society.

But in the process of integration, the central issue remains as to how they are going to be perceived. This was a problem for the parents of Filipino children who came to Canada before they were born or when they were still toddlers hugging on to their parents as they boarded their planes, and the same problem now confronts our young people as they transition into their adult lives.

Are we going to categorize them according to their inherited traditions, their religion, their language, or the community in which they were born? Are we going to give that unchosen identity priority over their political affiliations, profession, gender, social involvements and many other connections?

Somewhere in the synergy of these categories is the emergent identity that our young people are looking for. Finding that identity becomes a bit emotional and disturbing to some of our young people when they discover that there are some attributes of our culture that are not even worthy of preservation, and there are some positive attributes but which are neglected because of their parents’ penchant for celebrating those which our young people want to discard.

For example, celebrations of our heritage in Toronto have been largely programmed around festivals involving beauty pageants such as Miss Manila or Mrs. Philippines, singing idols and dance contests, Pistahan sa Toronto, or Mabuhay Festival.

Instead of raising our image in the community, all these festivities only reinforce the Filipinos’ carefree and easygoing attitude, or their hospitality as a singular and exceptional trait. Didn’t we ever ask ourselves that this description of Filipinos as “welcoming, friendly and hospitable” might have been concocted for us by Western historians to keep us meek and docile and make our colonization much easier? Until today, this Filipino trait is always invoked when singling out Filipinos as the best service and care providers in the world.

We have heroes like Marcelo H. del Pilar, the “greatest journalist produced by the purely Filipino race,” according to his Spanish enemies, and Graciano Lopez Jaena, the first editor of La Solidaridad, who led, together with Jose Rizal, the propaganda movement against the Spanish colonizers.

No other colonized country in Asia produced as many intellectuals in the class of Rizal, del Pilar, Lopez Jaena, Mariano Ponce, Juan and Antonio Luna or Apolinario Mabini who could be the pride of any country in the world. Other Asian colonies did not produce such brilliant painters as Juan Luna, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, Lorenzo Guerrero, Antonio Malantic and many others. Such colonies did not produce composers and musicians like Marcelo Adonay, Bibiano Morales, Hipolito Rivera, Ladislao Bonus and many others. Yet, we do not celebrate anyone of these individuals and their achievements, in the way Americans or Canadians remember their heroes, or their best writers and artists. In fact, most of us may have never heard of them.

No wonder our young people are confused.

There is, however, a very serious problem in misusing multiculturalism as a means for integration, especially at present when there is an increasing tendency to overlook the many identities any human being has and to try to categorize individuals according to a pre-eminent religious identity.

Consider how Islamist instigators of terror and violence against infidels may want Muslims to forget that they have any identity other than being Islamic. Or a Christian fundamentalist who sows fear for the coming of the anti-Christ as having no other identity except being a Roman Catholic or an evangelical Protestant. Or the orthodox Jew who sees himself or herself only in the image taught by the laws of Moses and nothing else. But this is another separate topic to discuss. Meantime, let us be reminded of the words of Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, when he wrote:

“The insistence, if only implicitly, on a choiceless singularity of human identity not only diminishes us all, it also makes the world much more flammable. The alternative to the divisiveness of one pre-eminent categorization is not any unreal claim that we are all much the same. Rather, the main hope of harmony in our troubled world lies in the plurality of our identities, which cut across each other and work against sharp divisions around one single hardened line of vehement division that allegedly cannot be resisted. Our shared humanity gets savagely challenged when our differences are narrowed into one devised system of uniquely powerful categorization.

“Perhaps the worst impairment comes from the neglect—and denial—of the roles of reasoning and choice, which follow from the recognition of our plural identities. The illusion of unique identity is much more divisive than the universe of plural and diverse classifications that characterize the world in which we actually live. The descriptive weakness of choiceless singularity has the effect of momentously impoverishing the power and reach of our social and political reasoning. The illusion of destiny exacts a remarkably heavy price.”

Monday, March 02, 2009

When rights and culture collide

Our notion of human rights oftentimes is so fragile. Partly because of the persistent fascination of most people with human rights as a Western construct, that its core values and norms are instinctively rooted in the way of life as it is known in the developed world.

Two incidents involving the way food is consumed and how humans clean after it is excreted from the body illustrate this feebleness of our human rights system.

In 2006, a Filipino seven-year-old Grade 2 student in a west-end school of Montreal was reprimanded and punished by his school lunch monitor for not eating “the way Canadians eat.” The young boy, who was born in the Philippines and came to Canada at the age of nine months, was eating with fork and spoon, a customary eating practice for Filipinos. Shocked by the eating habits of the boy which seemed primitive by the school’s standards, the school principal then asked the boy if people from his country washed their hands before they eat. The principal also told the boy’s mother that they live in Canada now and that they are required to eat like Canadians. Apparently, there is an official way to eat in Canada.

Incensed by the culturally insensitive remarks of the school principal, the boy’s family filed a complaint, and public indignation against the school ensued. After two years, the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission partially upheld the complaint by finding the comments of the school principal discriminatory and in violation of the child’s rights. However, the Commission did not find that the young child was reprimanded because of his cultural habit of eating with a spoon and fork at the same time.

In January 2009, a Filipino worker was sacked by his Australian employer, the Townsville Engineering Industries (TEI), for his “un-Australian” toilet habits. Amador Bernabe, a machine operator on a working visa from the Philippines, used tap water to clean himself instead of toilet paper.

The incident happened after Bernabe’s foreman followed him into the toilet questioning his toilet hygiene. He was holding a bottle of water when his foreman warned him that he couldn’t bring the water inside the toilet. Bernabe replied that it was for his personal hygiene and he wasn’t breaking any law or rules of the company.

Bernabe was called to report to the company manager the following morning and was asked what happened. The manager said if he didn’t follow the Australian way that he would be immediately terminated from work. “Sir, then you better terminate me,” Bernabe replied.

TEI denied firing Bernabe for his toilet habits. The company’s manager said that Bernabe’s toilet habits posed a serious health risk to other employees and he had been counselled a number of times about the issue.

According to his manager, Bernabe’s practice of cleaning himself with water after his toilet visits had left the toilet cubicles splashed with water suspected to be contaminated with faeces and wet soggy toilet paper lying on the floor. “Other employees complain about the mess and the possible spread of disease and will not use the cubicles until they are cleaned and disinfected,” the manager added.

Both of the above incidents illustrate to us the difficulty in tolerating and accepting the culture of people from impoverished societies into the mainstream culture of the more dominant economies. The young boy from Montreal was punished and isolated from his peers and commanded to another table to eat alone because he used a fork to mash his food and push it into his spoon. The school lunch monitor found this habit disgusting and similar to eating like a pig. In Australia, while Mr. Bernabe lost his job, it earned him the praise of the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union for standing for his rights which the union believed were violated by Bernabe’s employer.

Far too often, countries as diverse as Canada and Australia get away with bragging about their multicultural societies. It is not easy to claim that we live in a multicultural society when even a small and very petty cultural difference like the choice of eating utensils or using water to clean up after relieving oneself can’t be tolerated. Living in an environment of multiculturalism includes tolerating those differences that don’t cause harm or insult fundamental values.

It appears so comical in this day and age of increased immigration and cultural diversity that an argument would arise about how each of us should shovel food into our mouths or whether we should use water or paper to wipe our behinds after using the toilet. Surely, there are much more serious and genuine cultural conflicts that arise in a multicultural setting without denouncing harmless practices for being “un-Canadian” or “un-Australian.” The only thing “un-Canadian” or “un-Australian” is the insensitivity and disrespect shown towards that young boy in Montreal for eating the way his parents taught him at home or, in the case of Mr. Bernabe, for his harmless, yet hygienic, toilet habits.

Harmonization of human rights standards will always remain complicated if some societies continue to insist that human rights are based on Western culture, and as such, are not applicable to societies whose cultures are non-Western. The incidents discussed earlier are trivial compared to values which are continually evolving and influenced by growing global economics and culture, values that appear to collide with traditional Western-based human rights beliefs.

Culture has become the most contentious issue in the debate whether there is universality of human rights. The wearing of burqas by Muslim women who have migrated to the West to cover their faces in accordance with hijab has become a controversial political issue in Western Europe. Intellectuals and political groups have advocated their prohibition for various reasons. In 2004, France became the first country to abolish the wearing of the burqa.

A senior member of the English government, Jack Straw, asked Muslim women from his constituency to remove any veils covering their faces during meetings with him. Some Muslim groups said they understood Mr. Straw’s concerns, but others rejected them as prejudicial.

Twenty years of war and a fundamentalist regime sent Afghan women into seclusion. The Taliban prohibited women from working outside the home and excluded them from education. Women could not appear in public without a burqa. Incidence of depression and other mental illnesses among women soared. After the liberation of Afghanistan from the hands of the Taliban, many hoped that women will be given equal rights with their male counterparts. But tradition, culture and religion remain formidable obstacles to equality.

In some regions of the globe, there are countries that have distinct cultures rooted deeply in their communities. Asia-Pacific countries, for instance, have been greatly influenced by Buddhist, Confucian, Hindu, Islamic or Christian beliefs which form a huge diversity of cultures. This situation supports the argument that since cultures are different, the values being upheld are also different. In other words, human rights must be interpreted in the context of this situation, in a manner that distinctly adapts to the situation, thinking and practices of peoples in a particular region. Recognition of certain rights should be valid in accordance with the culture of a people and not be considered in derogation or distortion of human rights as expressed in international human rights instruments.

Cultural diversity actually enriches human rights rather than inscribe a different perspective. Human rights principles bring out the common features of the cultures of a people. The pervasive presence of culture in the lives of people is just a natural result of human existence. Hence, the general principles contained in the international human rights instruments must be given wider meaning as they are supplemented by the depth of the cultures of a people. Some cultures stress duty, community welfare, obedience to authority, consensual approach to problem resolution – values that are essential to social cohesion, which in turn are important in upholding human rights. Following this line of argument, human rights therefore are universal and indivisible. Nothing justifies emphasizing some rights and putting secondary importance on other rights.

The great task remains in how to find the best means of relating the cultures of a given people to universal human rights principles. Claims that some practices are “un-American,” or “un-Canadian,” or “un-Australian” will not be helpful by any means. Some cultural elements can be easily identified with human rights while others may be found contrary to basic rights. The important issue is not to lose focus on the fact that the realization of human rights has to take into account the cultural milieu of peoples, of finding a common ground between cultures and human rights which will lead to their meaningful interaction.