Wednesday, November 25, 2009


In Eating Crow, the novelist Jay Rayner cooked up an Office of Apology in the United Nations, which is responsible for the task of “penitential engagement.” It was the hottest trend in international relations in dealing with the baggage from wars, genocides and persecutions of the past. The novel’s main protagonist, Marc Basset, is hired as Chief Apologist because of his innate ability to deliver heartfelt apologies and for his “plausibility apologibility.”

Already a world leader in official apologies, this is what Canada needs. Or perhaps, every society or community needs one. In this highly emotional world we live, the words we utter most often, depending on how they are written or said, may be perceived as hurting or hurtful.

Words speak more powerfully than actions nowadays. Never mind political correctness. We have just become too sensitive, not for any lack of humour, but because our personal moral filters have become too tight to allow room for intelligent conversations. In other words, we have become too nice. Every word we utter must be sanitized and non-toxic.

During a debate of ideas, for instance, some would refuse the validity of the arguments of their opponents and respond with slurs of their own, the better to hide their insecurities about their own respectable stature or popular appeal in the community. They will nitpick arguments, choosing a word or two to capitalize and engender animosity against the other side.

Take the word “legal scholar,” for example. An argument that says one is a legal scholar because of one’s pretentious viewpoints is merely a form of harmless sarcasm to put the other party off-kilter. Although a very common rhetorical device, sarcasm may be interpreted as expressing contempt. The comment might have been used originally to elicit humour, however, others might take it as hostile or critical.

In the old days, an effective retort to a sarcastic remark is to expose the shallowness of the other side’s argument. But how often does the person who’s been pushed to his corner respond with intelligence nowadays?

People also have the tendency to appeal to calls for empty unity or sobriety, as if putting the lid on a steaming conversation will resolve a dispute or settle the disagreement. To my mind, this is a defeatist attitude. Instead of finding a resolution, whether by compromise or by quashing all arguments to the contrary, a call for truce is only an intervening event before the two sides strike at each other again. It is a half-hearted effort to conflict resolution and in virtually all cases will contribute more to an impasse.

Is there really a need to apologize when we feel sorry for our actions, or for the words we use?

The word apology originally meant a defence of one’s position. It comes from the Greek word apologia, meaning speaking in defence. Over time, the word assumed a double-edged feature. Rather than a justification for one’s actions, it has become an admission of a harm done, an acceptance of responsibility.

On his last day in Parliament, Pierre Trudeau was asked by then leader of the opposition, Brian Mulroney, to apologize to Japanese Canadians who were herded in internment camps during World War II. Trudeau snickered at Mulroney and said: “I do not think it is the purpose of government to right the past. I cannot rewrite history.”

Yet, we have apologized so often and so fast for our government’s shortcomings and failures. In our personal lives, we have also used the perfect apology for our actions and words such that apologies have become cheap, and to some extent, without true remorse.

Nowadays, there are many tested ways to effectively and creatively apologize. We try to learn successful approaches, styles and techniques for getting out of the doghouse with our spouses, friends, family members, customers, partners, and business associates. There are even sites on the Internet that can help download the perfect apology.

In our desire to be truthful in saying we’re sorry, we often end up giving a non-apology apology. It is a statement, phrased like an apology, but in fact is nothing but a common gambit, so common in politics and public relations. One says he’s sorry not for a behaviour, statement or misdeed, but rather is sorry only because a person who has been aggrieved is requesting an apology, expressing a grievance or is threatening some form of retribution or retaliation.

An example of a non-apology apology would be to say, “I’m sorry if you were offended by my remarks.” The apology does not admit anything was wrong with the remarks made, but it subtly insinuates that the person taking offense was excessively thin-skinned in taking offense at the remarks in the first place.

This type of apology is simply an artful double talk where someone gets what he wants by expressing regret while accepting no blame. Don’t we get this kind of apology so often? Yet, we give or ask forgiveness so often that the act has lost its edge and has become but a mere passing of words.

And oh, I’m so sorry, but I didn’t really mean to write these remarks—and I regret if some might have been offended by some of the words I’ve said.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The invention of lying

What if our world is a place where people only tell the truth? Where no one can tell a lie or even knows what a lie is. A place where no one can just imagine saying something that isn’t true.

Well, this has happened, except it’s only in a movie called “The Invention of Lying.” Ricky Gervais, the principal actor in the original “Office” has a created a world where people will just swallow anything: hook, line and sinker, never mind how preposterous or stupid. But one thing that would be lacking in this kind of place is humour because how more sick could it be than to fool stupid people.

An organization that I had referred to in my earlier blog is virtually the antithesis of Gervais’ world, where the norm seems to be that lies and deception are more important than the truth. Here you don’t even have to invent lies. Lying has become so pervasive that one person’s lies are considered the truth by many of his friends no matter whether their conscience tells them otherwise. Worse, acceptance of his lies has even led to changing the rules of the organization, and no one really cares if the group’s collective assent to give his lies the cloth of authority is right or not. In a sense, it’s almost similar to Gervais’ make-believe world where everyone is now assumed to be telling the truth every time.

In reality, a lie can easily purport to be the truth, not because it’s really true. The weight of a lie becoming the truth depends heavily on how it is accepted. In a democratic tumult of ideas, for instance, where a lie is pitted against the truth, the latter may lose out by a simple tyranny of numbers.

Take the example of the raucous tea parties staged by Republican diehard supporters in the United States in opposing President Barack Obama’s health reform initiative. Somehow all the noise and boisterous numbers that appeared everyday in front of the US Capitol had watered down the public health option. The final bill, if ever passed by the houses of Congress after too much haggling and trading, when it reaches Obama’s table for signature may not even have any resemblance to the proposal initiated by the incumbent administration.

In my organization in Toronto, a counterrevolution of supporters of the aforementioned liar has formed a fortress of defence against the opposition who stands for the truth. In this struggle between reason and unabashed passion, the outcome will simply be determined by the simplest rule of numbers. If truth be hanged, and passion gets emotionally carried away by the wily devices and tricks used by their legal commentators, those who fought for reason can only raise their heads up high, or low, if they prefer to continue mourning for such is the heavy price of the democratic politics of numbers.

For the moralist or ethicist, the question of lying creates great difficulties. There are those who hold that it is never allowable while others are more accommodating.

Plato, for example, in his Republic, allows doctors and statesmen to lie occasionally for the welfare of their patients and for the common weal. Yet it was the same Plato who wrote that lies are not only evil in themselves, but also they infect the soul of those who utter them. In the end, Plato stood for the uncompromising view that a moral life has room only for the truth.

Modern philosophers are also divided in the same way. Immanuel Kant allowed a lie under no circumstance. Kant believed that all persons are born with an intrinsic worth he called human dignity. This dignity allows humans to capably make their own decisions and guides them in making their choices.

Most modern non-Catholic writers admit the lawfulness of the lie of necessity. Under today’s pragmatism, which denies the existence of an absolute truth and measures the morality of actions on their effect on society and on the individual, it seems the portals are more open to all lies. The downside of this pragmatism is that lies, whether white or simply expedient, are apt to pave the way for others of a darker hue with more serious and injurious consequences than ever imagined.

When the habit of untruthfulness becomes an accepted practice or a way of life, as it is in the aforementioned organization, it may practically be impossible to limit its whim to matters which are harmless. For interest and habit alike inevitably lead to the violation of truth and to the detriment of others. What the leaders of this organization may fail to realize is that gaining momentary victory in putting lie over truth diminishes and erodes their leadership and the confidence and trust of the general membership. After more than 30 years of existence, this situation may precipitate a ruinous split which the leaders of the organization wanted to avoid in the first place.

Lying is an issue worth examining, as many people today believe it is becoming a bigger and pervasive social problem than before. A Time magazine cover story concluded that “Lies flourish in social uncertainty, when people no longer understand, or agree on, the rules governing their behaviour toward one another.”

Perhaps because we have turned ourselves into a mixture of philosophers, those who are sometimes rigid or virtuous or pragmatic, sharing no common ground. We need to involve more people to consider the ethical perspectives when confronting a situation that tempts a lie and never to buckle down from our commitment to follow through when our dissatisfaction with the ethical value of reasoning seems to weigh down on us.

We need not succumb to the idea that the truth does not always have to be the whole truth, for this makes us feel like Nietzsche is right: that lies are necessary as much as they complement life, that human relationships are never truly free of the uneasiness and tensions which our jealousies and uncertainties bring.

Abraham Lincoln once said: “If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem. It is true that you may fool all of the people some of the time; you can never fool some of the people all the time; but you can’t fool all the people all of the time.”

Friday, November 13, 2009

Morality bug

The flu bug got me before I could take the annual visit to my doctor for my inoculation, grounding me for almost a week of bed rest. Lying listlessly on bed while enduring the dull pain that was shooting every bone in my body, I was just thankful it wasn’t the H1N1 flu virus.

It was there on the bed in the middle of a crazy afternoon as I was trying to get some sleep, that another bug, not related to the pandemic one that has kept health authorities worldwide on alert, hit me right on the head. This was the moralizing or morality bug. The question that looms big in my shrinking mind, possibly an effect of the flu, was why people enjoy moralizing.

Perhaps, some psychological need must be satisfied when we speak to others about our knowledge or sense of right and wrong. We like our world view to be validated, and at same time to enjoy the experience of wielding power over others. We like to impose upon others our view of how they should live and behave. If we are able to convince others we are right when we moralize, perhaps we even feel some thrill at having been right or powerful.

This is what moralizers do, to go beyond telling others what is acceptable behaviour. They want others to conform to their views, and usually, they bring this about by coercion, which could range from social disapproval to legal control.

Professor A. C. Grayling, in The Meaning of Things: Applying Philosophy to Life, wrote: “in forcing others to comply with their preferences they show at least several of the following: insensitivity, intolerance, unkindness, lack of imagination, failure of sympathy, absence of understanding, ignorance of alternative interests and needs in human experience, and arrogance in believing that theirs is the only acceptable way. They defend their actions by saying that they are trying to defend others from harm, thereby claiming not only a monopoly on moral judgment, but the right to decide on others’ behalf what is good for them.”

This moralizing bug has deeply troubled my thinking, already befuddled by the flu bug, as I followed an unexpected crisis in an organization that I belong to. An exclusive organization, one must be a graduate of the school its members went to or according to the Rule 60. The Rule 60 stipulates that one must at least earn 60 units of courses, roughly equivalent to two years, to qualify as a member. It is a rule that has been followed by the organization for over 30 years.

Then the almost impossible happened. Someone was able to join the organization by not making a full and honest disclosure of his credentials. Whether he complied with Rule 60 became the focal point of the controversy.

As first, he claimed he had a bachelor’s degree, a full scholarship in economics, and that NATO lost his original diploma which he sent to them for consideration. When he was about to be exposed, he confessed, admitting that he never had a degree from the school and only spent a year there studying as a scholar. But that was not enough to muster Rule 60.

Without reservations, his ardent army of supporters ditched the reason or purpose of the organization by arguing that there is much more to the organization than a diploma or 60 units. One member even said: “A diploma is an important piece of paper. But you don’t loose (sic) your credentials when you loose (sic) it. Honesty and integrity and the university spirit make us true and qualified members of the organization.”

Doesn’t he get it? This person lied about his credentials, pretended he was a graduate and then only confessed when the heavy weight of unmasking was about to fall down on him.

What university spirit? This is learned and imbibed on the grounds of the school when we were youngsters in pursuit of higher education. Without that existential experience, any moral claim of embracing the university spirit is empty and disingenuous. Oscar Wilde once said that "a man who moralizes is usually a hypocrite."

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that morality involves judgments that conform to a law of reason. But these moralizers in my organization have no shred of reason in their didactic arguments.

Consider, for example, what the elected members of council of my organization tried to accomplish in order to get around Rule 60. The council passed a grandfathering resolution to exempt the aforementioned non-graduate (or pretender, if you may). This is debunking the correct interpretation of what grandfathering is. There is grandfathering when one is exempted from the new rule because the old rule still applies to him. But the old rule does not apply to him, so why do you need to grandfather him? The net result of the grandfather resolution by the organization’s council is an entirely new rule adopted in order to accommodate the non-graduate, an effect normally achieved through a process of amending the organization’s rules. Based on their moral judgment, there is no violation of the rules, thus the resolutions adopted would only strengthen the constitution (rules) of the organization.

Making moral judgments is as human as sleeping and eating. We reason about values and make value judgments. But moral judgments, to differentiate it from moralizing, require the best of our intellects, and sometimes, the best of our hearts, too.

The moral values of people differ from others on a range of issues. But that should not make us less enthusiastic about moral engagement.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Canada’s new underclass

In just a few years, Canada brought in under its temporary foreign workers program an army of low-skilled migrant workers for jobs that Canadians are not willing to take under prevailing wage levels and working conditions. Jobs like vegetable and fruit-picking, work in the oil sands, bait worm collectors, cleaners, packers and people who dismember pigs for meat packaging plants.

When temporary jobs are completed or their work permits run out, or in some cases when jobs are wiped out by an economic recession, these workers are forced to take survival jobs, mostly underground, because of their lack of immigration status.

As a result, Canada’s temporary foreign workers program has created a burgeoning, permanent and illegal underclass. A new class of vulnerable workers without status and deprived of government protections.

Most of these migrant workers do not leave Canada when their work permits expire. Driven by poverty and worsening economic conditions in their home countries, more and more are opting to stay here and work underground.

What went wrong with Canada’s immigration policy?

Previously, Canada was the envy of the world when it used a points system in assessing new immigrants, the first country to adopt such a scheme. Under the points system which was started in the 1960s, higher points were given to education and work experience and those who earned high scores were accepted.

As it turned out, while the points system has helped Canada compete for highly educated workers, the most coveted immigrants in technology and other cutting-edge-industries, it also created a massive backlog of more than 800,000 applications in recent years, and waits of four years or more.

Meanwhile, employers in Canada have been demanding for skilled blue-collar workers, especially in western Canada, where Alberta’s busy oil fields have generated an economic boom. Employers have had a hard time finding workers because low-skilled workers and trades people have no hope under the inflexible point system.

Some Canadian employers eventually found a solution by sidestepping the points system and relying instead on a program initiated in 1998 that allows provincial governments to handpick some migrant workers and assign temporary foreign worker permits.

Thousands of blue-collar and unskilled workers, mostly visible minorities, are brought to Canada annually under the program.

In 2004, there were 126, 026 temporary foreign workers brought into the country; as of December 2008, this has almost doubled to 252,196.

Those who support the temporary foreign worker program rationalized the dramatic increase in migrant workers as necessary in managing labour demands in critical sectors of the economy and in overcoming the limitations of an immigration system that favours highly educated applicants but creates shortages of low-skilled workers.

Proponents of the program have also argued that temporary foreign workers benefit migrant-sending countries through remittances and skills transfer, and that the program offers a safe and a legal alternative to undocumented migration.

But the reality is not as rosy and as promising. Aside from creating a vulnerable class of workers, the program has not created opportunities for skills transfer. Most of the jobs assumed by these migrant workers are at the low end of the skills pyramid. Since they are brought in to Canada to satisfy the industry’s demands for short-term cheap labour, the temporary foreign worker program has left these workers defenceless and at risk of exploitation and ethnic strife.

A recent study of temporary migrant worker programs in both the United States and Canada described these workers as North America’s second-class citizens.

The study suggested that temporary foreign worker programs are contributing to the “precariousness” of work, a global phenomenon characterized by deregulation of employment standards, eroding social protection for workers and families, declining unionization, as well shifting the norm of standard employment relationship.

Temporary contracts and part-time work are fast becoming the new norms for highly paid consultants as well as lower paid temporary workers.

Competitive jobs are outsourced overseas, e.g., call centres, and non-competitive and mainly low-wage occupations are filled by temporary foreign workers, e.g., caregivers for children and the elderly. Furthermore, low-skill temporary foreign worker programs funnel workers into highly racialized occupations with growing concentrations of visible minority workers.

According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), foreign workers, including temporary foreign workers, have the same rights and protections as all Canadian workers as they are covered under the same federal and provincial labour standards. But reality tells us that migrant workers cannot exercise their rights in the same way as citizens because of language barriers, lack of information, geographic and social isolation, poor transportation, fear of employer reprisal, and dependence on their employers for permission to remain in Canada and future employment.

Temporary foreign workers are left susceptible to abuses in the labour market, by their employers who exploit their conditions and migrant status, and to corruption and fraud by unregulated third-party recruiters.

The absence of an effective government regulatory framework has also rendered the temporary foreign worker program almost unregulated.

While the program is part of Canada’s federal immigration policy, it is managed jointly by two federal departments (Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, HRSDC and Citizenship and Immigration Canada, CIC), and is supposedly governed by provincial statutes with regard to employment standards, labour and health. When problems are brought to the attention of federal officials, responsibility is often deferred back to provincial and municipal levels as a form of buck-passing. Thus, abuses of migrant workers go unchecked because there is no federal accountability and regulation. At the federal level, there is no protective legislation in place for temporary migrant workers.

In creating a permanent underclass of workers vulnerable to exploitation as cheap labour, Canada has now joined the ranks of countries importing workers with no intention of giving them a new home. Much like the “guest worker” programs in Europe when Germany and the Netherlands opened up their doors to migrant workers whom they never intended to absorb into their populations. For years, these guest workers had to endure living marginalized lives because they did not have access to settlement services.

Canada’s new underclass of temporary foreign workers is not something that fell suddenly from the sky because the bureaucrats in Ottawa were not doing their jobs. In its most recent 2009 Fall Report, the Auditor General of Canada questioned why CIC and the HRSDC never formally evaluated the Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP) and the pilot project for occupations requiring low levels of formal training that brought hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in the country.

In 2002, a total of 6,178 applications under the LCP were received; this number ballooned to 20,799 in 2008, an increase of more than 236 per cent. The pilot project for low-skilled workers, on the other hand, was launched without any formal objectives, with very limited analysis of risks and no basis on which to evaluate its success. It has been in pilot status for seven years up to now. Combined with live-in caregivers, temporary foreign workers under this pilot project now account for more than half of all temporary foreign workers in Canada.

Given the inherent risks in these two programs, the Auditor General found it difficult to believe why an evaluation has never been done by the federal government.

One can only surmise that the government simply took a blind eye and ignored the eventuality of a nascent underclass of exploited workers, a large surplus of unprotected workers ripe for the picking by Canadian employers looking for cheap labour.

The Auditor General’s scathing report concluded that overall, the practices of CIC and HRSDC do not ensure that foreign worker programs are delivered efficiently and effectively.

Canada’s temporary foreign worker program poses “significant risks to the integrity of the program and could leave many foreign workers in a vulnerable position, particularly those who are physically or linguistically isolated from the general community or are unaware of their rights,” the Auditor General warned.

If these temporary foreign workers are good enough to work, they are also good enough to stay.

The same class of workers built Canada during the last century, building the trans-Canada railroad and highways, constructing Canada’s skyscrapers and housing developments, cultivating and working on the fields in the Prairies. There is neither rhyme nor reason why Canada should not embrace this growing underclass, to be consistent to its humanitarian and compassionate ethos as a society.