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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Saturday 14 January 2012

Justin Trudeau Speech at Liberal Party Convention Published January 13th, 2012

Justin Trudeau in far more poetic language than I manage to sum up on social evolution, human potential, and the rise of the profrontal cortex. 

It's always a good feeling when wiser people than I seem to have hooked in to the same realities I see.  We just need that net of understanding to spread further, faster.

“Thank you all for being here. This is a really, really important convention. You’ll see a lot of people talking about where’s the Liberal party going…

What is most important is that we are together we are talking substantially about how we’re moving forward and we’re building up the confidence and strength to start to address the real challenges we’re facing. Not just as a party, not just the country.. But as a planet and a civilization, the 21st century is one in which the challenges we’re collectively facing .. Whether the environment or poverty, or social justice, human rights, or the conflicts that automatically arise when all these other problems come into play. The 21st century will be extremely difficult for humans, but for that very reason we must ensure that solutions can be brought forward.

We have come to a place where we can say we can’t continue with the status quo. We have to think of the best way to interest people, to address society and civilization. We can no longer simply assume that the world is big enough that if we took care of our own little corner of it the rest would fall into place. We can no longer simply assume that there will always be enough time to shift, to adapt, to change our behaviors,.

Humanity and the civilization that were living in right now with were successful because of short term thinking. Because of people maximizing the resources they draw on… We now need a whole new way of thinking that is much more long-term, much more responsive to the consequences of our small insignificant actions and much more mindful of the power of each and every one of us has individually to shape the society we live in.

At a time where we should be saying information is powerful, we’ve never been so power , we’ve never felts so powerless. What can an individual truly do to have an impact on the world around us when it’s so big, so fast , when it all seems so huge ?

… The crisis of relevance is visible most concretely in our young people. We get a bad rap. I know this. A bad rap for being apathetic… four cynicism…

But the apathy comes not because we don’t care about the world, but because we care so much. Because were frustrated that we’ll get to have our say. We don’t get to make that difference in the world, that were supposedly going to inherit. And our cynicism comes from the fact that we believe that the world could be better, that the world should be better. That we should be doing things differently and nothing seems to change.

That’s why every single speech I’ve given over the past 5 to 6 years to young people, to high schools , to elementary schools, universities, groups of Canadians across the country have included… A total cliché That young people are not our leaders of tomorrow. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are leaders of tomorrow. The “leader of tomorrow” is conditional: If you do your homework, if you get involved, if you did the right sort of things to succeed, then one day you become a leader.

No you’re not leaders of tomorrow. You’re leaders of today. The kinds of thinking that you can bring forward, the kinds of challenges of rethinking our society that we have – like Martha said – we need to be bold. You need to be bold. Older people get stuck in their mortgages, their career path, their way of what works, and what has worked. And that’s important. In all societies must be resistance to change for stability. But we also have to know how to question the status quo. How to challenge ourselves to be more, to think better, to think differently.

And this is something that has to come from every one of us here. All of young people who don’t feel that politics is important. People who prefer to join Greenpeace or Amnesty International or local initiatives within their own communities rather than play partisan politics. This is what we have to change And young liberals have to go back to all of the young people in your schools and colleges, in cities.. Young people who are not terribly interested in politics but want to change the world. We have to show them that politics is a way to change the world.

The crisis of relevance we’re living goes to a very, very basic element. Human beings have one basic core need. Once you get past the need for food, shelter, clothing, we are social animals. We need to feel like we are relevant. We need to see we matter to our tribe. And the accumulation of wealth, of fame and material goods can sometimes be an indicator of how important you are, how much impact you have your community.

But.. fundamentally …fundamentally … human beings get defined fundamentally by what they have to offer the world around them. We have a society right now of young academics, of young leaders, of young people who realize that the old way of thinking does not hold anymore. And we need to be bold. We need to stand up. We need to say, “ let’s rethink everything” because we know that the challenge we’re facing as a planet, as a civilization, can only be solved if countries like Canada — that have all the solutions at our fingertips, and all the advantages in the world — step up.

…We must put aside ideology… and start building on our values and our common themes and what works, in evidence-based policy. That is why Canada needs Liberal Party and the Liberal Party needs Canada. Thank you, young people for all you’re doing and dare dare to change the world.”

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Building the Social Animal: Society, Politics and the Mental Health Solution

In raising mental health (phrased another way, cognitive function) as a top social priority, White hits the nail squarely on the head.  As I’ll get to later, I think a proper understanding of what “mental health” actually means and what role cognitive function plays in social dynamics will enable us to bridge a number of social inequity barriers and inefficiency gaps, including the challenges facing First Nations.  Ironically enough, as economic growth is seen as the biggest factor in determining social and individual success, I believe that our challenge and our promise are both a reflection of neurological innovation.

There's a general rule that application always lags behind innovation; you get a new computer model before you've mastered how to use the last one, then there's a mobile device, etc.  When it comes to practical usage of what’s new, we're always playing catch-up (“you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is simply a colloquial description of the cons of myelination).  This is as true in biology as it is in technology, even moreso in a social context.  The fine-motor capacity of our bodies lags behind the demands put on it; we simply aren’t designed for long stints of sitting at desks or chronic keyboard use, yet that’s what society demands of us.

We have only just begun to fathom the depth of what this principle means to society and individual biology.  One quick example – you don't find ulcers in zebras because zebras don’t face chronic stress; they face biochemical stress in short stints, after which they are either dead or free to live another day.  Humans, on the other hand, are constantly hitting the stress button; in gridlock, in meeting work deadlines, in facing the schoolyard bully or the micro-managing boss, in domestic challenges, etc.  The closest equivalent to the level of chronic stress our species faces would be small, skittish creatures that exist in a constant state of reactive-readiness to respond to predation.  These aren't species that tend to live very long lives.

Thanks to the collective benefits of society (healthcare and security in place of aggressiveness/defensiveness), humans are living increasingly long lives and being exposed to an ever-increasing amount of stressors.  These come in both physical (keyboards, cramped subways, isolation through living in single-family dwellings, long work days spent sitting, shifts that interfere with biological rhythms of sleep and eating, etc.) and less apparent but no less impactful, psychological (email flow, traffic jams, cubicle farms, micro-management, stigma) forms.

In the grandest of ironies, much of the issues that plague society, ranging from physical diseases like asthma, repetitive stress injury and cancers are caused or exacerbated by the conditions of society.  As in all things, the benefits of social living are offset by its negative consequences.  While our bodies are designed for certain degrees of social functioning – hands designed for tool use, parts of our brain built for tool design, throats designed for speech and minds capable of fabricating language), the innovations of society are always a couple steps ahead of our biological, neurological capacity to adapt.

Where this conflict (the growth and well-being of society vs the growth and well-being of the individual) stems from is neuro-biology.  The reason we are social creatures at all is due to the development of the prefrontal cortex.  The prefrontal, or “neo” cortex is the part of our brain responsible for, among other things, planning and executive function.  The reason that we have more individualized interests is due to our reactive, limbic mind that encourages us to go for instant gratification regardless of longer-term consequence.

I cannot over-emphasize how pervasive this simple biological reality is in our daily lives, or the general functioning of society.  Even political, ideological differences seem to be social manifestations of these two basic drives – individual interest vs. collective interest, or biological evolution vs social evolution.

Think about it - the neo-cortex is the root of executive functioning (central coordination) and pro-social behaviour (the collective benefit of the whole).  Does that not sound like the basic premise of the ideological Left?  The left wants a solid social safety net managed by a strong, central government that inevitably bleeds away from individual (provincial, municipal, agency, individual) independence.  It’s growth through collaboration.

On the other hand, the limbic system is all about individual strength and the ability to react required when there is no social safety net - does that not sound like the decentralized, individual strength and independence that forms the basis of Right-Wing thought?  The Right is all about individual success stemming from competition.

We are social creatures – the interconnectivity of humanity is such that, thrown out into the wild, most people would be unable to survive independently (and note the correlation between support for individualism and independence and rural living vs. support for specialization and social opportunity in urban environments).  Yet, the pressures of fully-integrated social living are more than we can handle; individually, we suffer from an increasing series of physical and psychologically-related stress factors and socially, we face systematic inequity. 

What happens in society is the same thing that happens when the body faces any stress, be it extreme temperatures or the threat of physical danger; we ramp up the appropriate internal system, taking energy away from others to do so. In society, the greater the duress we face, the greater the internal inequity we face.  You can see it happening now, right here in Canada – the polarization of our politics and the disappearance of the middle class are an exact parallel to physiological responses to stress, with “trouble lapping at our shores” standing in for a hungry lion.  The “cold war” was aptly names for reasons we didn’t fully understand at the time.

When I look at this whole process from the viewpoint of evolution, it’s fascinating – watching the disparate elements of humanity become increasingly integrated is like watching how complex organs like an eye or complex internal systems like the respiratory system developed in real-time.  In fits and spurts, we are building a social ecology, an organism that is greater than the sum of its parts.

At the same time, the practical reality is that the process is subjecting us to micro and macro stresses that are not conducive to quality-of-life.   On the individual level, we have depression, anxiety, road rage and the whole suite of repetitive stress injuries.  On the macro level, we have the problems facing First Nation communities and the increasing likelihood of war with Iran, the isolation of North Korea or the return of fascism in Europe.

Where we are is where we are – the human evolutionary trend is leading towards increased socialization and inter-dependence.  Our evolving consciousness of this fact is only going to speed up the process.  At the same time, we simply aren’t ready to be wholly integrated as a society; we need individual capacity to succeed at both the psychological and physical level.  So, then – what do we do?

As in all things in life, the solution is to be found not in the political left or in the political right, but through the balance of each (which is probably why duality and balance has been such a consistent theme in societies the world over, my favourite example being Lao-tzu’s Tao-te-Ching).  We need both the left AND the right – the two inform each other and, in so doing, eventually arise at the compromises that find the balance between the needs of the one and the needs of the many.

Which brings us back to why a better understanding of mental health is necessary for a properly functioning society.  Just as understanding the why behind a phobia or a craving makes them easier to manage, understanding the cognitive motivation behind everything we do will enable us to do it better.

Which is also why there’s a growing trend towards both social collaboration and a focus on mental health; we need both.  Consciously, we can get there faster, more efficiently.  Having spoken to politicians, social and business leaders representing multiple facets of society, I can say with confidence that the majority of our leaders already have the right intent – all they need to do is follow-through.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Have A Little Faith in Education

Two trends emerging in the Ontario zeitgeist:

1)      A realization that inefficiencies (duplication, gaps and overlaps) are costing far more than we can afford

2)      The rising primacy of religion as a central topic of conversation with all that entails; morality, sex education, church vs state, etc.

At first blush, it looks like these two things are at odds with each other.  Differing religions have differing views; both are not infrequently at odds with secular views (Gay/Straight alliances being a great example of this).  There is no way to have one school system that allows for all children to be exposed to the niche lessons of their faith, particularly as it influences various other subject matter (science and evolution being the classic example).

More than that, there are structural issues.  Attempts to synergize transportation between Public and Private boards has often been met with heavy resistance, in many cases because, ironically, the well-organized Catholic Boards lacked faith in their Public partners being able to up their game in terms of logistics.

Regardless of the politics, the facts are pretty clear; schooling is costly, there are less kids being supported by increasingly empty, aging facilities.  In some schools, taxpayer dollars are going to heat dead space, while in other schools, cockroach infestation problems go unchecked.  It’s unsustainable.

Due to an ideological, political divide, we are facing resource duplication, gaps and overlaps that are causing our fiscal woes.

Frank Klees’ suggestion to fund religious schools is not the answer – in fact, such a move not only increases the problems outlined above, it creates less understanding and more cause for suspicion and recrimination between faith groups.  With more school spaces competing for resources, students, duplicating infrastructure and operational costs, this approach would frankly increase the occurrence of duplication, gaps and overlaps we already have.  Beyond this, the religious-community focus of siloed education would isolate kids from each other, creating a social divide in terms of understanding and exposure.  Diversity is a strength, like learning in general - why would we want to take tools away from our kids and leave them ill-prepared to function in a diversified society and economy post-education?

The answer isn’t to completely remove religion from schools, either.  Remember, we want a division between church and state, but we also want our youth to be as knowledgeable, prepared and resilient as possible – all religions have something to offer on this score.

The answer is to reduce the silos of disparate school boards and reduce the inefficiency problem by bringing religion into school more broadly.  Ludicrous, you might say!  It can’t be done! 

Yes it can; here’s how.

1)      Include an overview of religion in the public curriculum

Like it or not, religion has had an integral role in the history of society.  If you look at the archaeological record, there's a strong correlation between the growth of religion and the development of civilization (as evidenced by some exciting work being done in Turkey).  Why not teach this to our youth?  We don't need to provide firm conclusions; just provide them with facts and empower them to put those facts together from their own perspective.  Call it critical thinking.

You wouldn’t need to have dedicated religious classes in the elementary system; just little tidbits here and there to build awareness, same as we do with numeracy, literacy, etc.  Plant the seeds of awareness, give the odd drink of knowledge, let youth grow as they may.  With encouragement and opportunity, they will seek out the influences that help them individually understand themselves and the world in a way that prepares them to be engaged, resilient, collaborative adults (Google: Social Emotional Learning).

A distinction would need to be made between a faith, like Christianity or Islam or Buddhism, and a faith’s institution.  This is not as hard to do as people think; democracy was first introduced in Greece on the back of social slavery; slavery plays as much a role in the history of the US as does ethnic genocide, which Canada has equally been guilty of.  We don’t discard the philosophy of democracy, though – we continually try to embody it more fully.  The history of religion would cover the human need to understand the world through a unifying lens and carry forward the trajectory of religion, who were the people that shaped it in the public discourse for better or for worse, subjectively.  To some degree the history curriculum does this already.

Separate from the history piece would be the social piece – the mechanics of religious philosophy (in basic terms) and the role of religion in society today; advocacy, charity, etc.  Religious leaders of different faiths would be invited to schools as guest lecturers; they could offer seminars on what their faith means to them.  Other guest lecturers can be invited on other topics related to the broader curriculum; politicians, scientists, etc.  Again, this happens already – the trick is to coordinate it more efficiently, as can only be done through collaboration.  Guest-lectured seminars could coincide with a teacher’s prep-time, maximizing efficiency of time.

In high school, there may be religious courses available, based on interest of students.  When I was in high school, I wanted to learn Spanish; I built up a network of support, identified a teacher and pitched the class to the administration.  Because I did my homework and brought partners and a ready-made-plan to the table, I was able to make it happen.  There’s no reason we shouldn’t encourage such active participation in all youth (which is why I advocate youth participation in Parliament in general).  A couple ideas?  The role of the Inquisition in the colonizing of the New World; the role of faith in the Civil Rights movement; the influence of Islamic belief on the development of remarkable art, architecture and algebra in the Muslim/Western world; the commonalities between world religions through symbols like the tree of life. 

When you really dig into it, religion offers an important window into history and offers some really cool concepts of common philosophical bonds that connect us all as human beings.

2)      Expand After-School Programs to include Religion

If the mountain won’t go to Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the mountain. 

There are two factors at play here – one, society keeps people busy; the social pressures parents are subjected to as they try to balance work/life pressures are enormous.  After-school programs can be pretty expensive, hard to reach, but the alternative of kids sitting at home glued to the tube isn’t appealing, either.  A fleshing out of existing after-school programming could turn schools into safe, monitored, multi-faceted after-school activity centres (some schools, particularly in low-income neighbourhoods, are already there).  Two – the busy-ness of society is increasingly taking time away from the things that ground us, including religion.  There is definite value in feeling part of something larger than oneself and finding meaning beyond selfish interest in one’s work (that’s why I got into politics).

Picture a school, once the classes are out, turning daily into a trade fair of ideas; kids can walk around and listen to expert-led discussions about a broad variety of topics, or sign up to participate fully in a seminar, learning more about a subject that engages them.  It would be a perfect, safe and monitored opportunity for youth to begin finding themselves and their interests through exposure to ideas, sport, etc.  These after-school idea fairs would make better, long-term use of school facilities and could be monetized by sponsorship from charity and for-private entities like book sellers or sports associations, as would be the case at any trade-fair.

Religious institutions would be able to represent themselves, just as could any other stakeholder.  A child who has been exposed to a given faith at home, been interested by what they learned in class or who has a friend who practices would have a chance to learn more.  Equally, each youth would have the opportunity to sit in and engage with real pastors/preachers/imams/etc. of multiple faiths, in person, helping them develop informed opinions about religion and their own belief systems moving forward.

This kills several birds with one stone – it takes pressure off parents worried about their kids safety and engagement post-school; it provides inroads for children to pick up new ideas and develop critical thinking and time management skills (no pressure to attend, but if you want to, you have to allocate your time accordingly), gives opportunity for sports, increases opportunity for religion to engage with youth, allows the various presenters an opportunity to network, fostering innovative potentials, etc.  If less people are travelling less distances all at the same time, this could even have a positive impact on gridlock.  Tell me that's not a win.

3)      Unify the Separate and Public School Boards

This is an idea as inevitable as it is controversial.  As a parent, I can understand this clearly; I only want what’s best for my son and am fully aware that there are viewpoints out there that contrast with my own, sometimes radically.  I’m not trying to raise my son to be my clone, though – he’s his own person and his world will be completely different than mine.  I want to expose him to as much as possible; each experience is a teaching lesson that helps me help my son develop into a critical thinker who knows how to work with people in a way that teases the best out of him and his peers.  Parenting isn't about control - it's about empowerment.  So should be education in general (or government, for that matter).

I look at the concerns being raised about Gay/Straight Alliances or sexual education; the fear is that something you don’t agree with could seep into the mix, that your kids might be exposed to something you might not like, something that could be harmful.  Whether it happens in school or out in the real world (or worse, on the Internet), it’s gonna happen anyway – isn’t it better to ensure your kids build up their knowledge, critical thinking/morality and resiliency as early as possible?  I think this is something most parents would agree with, so long as they had comfort that their own perspective was part of the mix – which it would be through a combination of history classes that infuse religion and social science classes that infuse religion, religious seminars as options of after-school programming and, of course, the parents’ own influence.  Besides, who's to say that a network of critical-thinking youth exposed to conflicts of view between church and state/religion and science won't find ways to square the circles more myelinated adults have had such difficulty with? 

To make this idea more palatable, I would suggest this – incorporate the Public System into the Separate System, rather than the reverse that everyone thinks will happen.  I believe that avoids constitutional issues, making it an easier process to pursue.   There would have to be some curriculum tweaks, sacrifices made on both ends, as happens in any relationship (again, good training for the real world), but the fact that Separate Boards already have familiarity with religion in the school would make it easier for them to take the lead.

Fundamentally, nothing would change; kids would be exposed to the same things they are now; there would just be a few additions.  As they got older, they would still have the same opportunities for specialization that they do now; they will just have a greater knowledge base from which to make their choices from.

Logistically, lots would change, all for the better.  Parents would no longer need to pass by the school closest to them (because it’s Public/Private) to get to one in their Board.  The infrastructure/student-to-teacher ratio burden would be eased (saving the Premier from having to backtrack on increasing classroom sizes).  The costs from duplication, gaps and overlaps would significantly decrease, allowing for increased funding to go to programming, infrastructure, technology, etc.  The additional revenue from Knowledge Fair sponsors would offset costs.  Best of all, kids would have increased exposure to knowledge and opportunity, and teachers from all spheres would have more raw material and time to work with.

Is this a bold idea?  Certainly, but it tries to balance the interests of the various parties, including the students.  Are there flaws?  Always are; there are flaws with the system now, which is why new ideas are called for.  Will it be challenging?  Of course it will – and leadership would be tested to find the balance and maintain the objective.  Still, though, I have faith that we can build a more efficient, mutually beneficial and long-term practical system if we work at it together.

Monday 9 January 2012

Stephen Harper, Social Darwinist

Stephen Harper is a victim of basic evolutionary drive; he believes in dominance and competition as the means by which the strongest emerges at the top.  It’s called “selection of the fittest.” He believes in divide-and-conquor in Parliament, divide-and-conquor when it comes to the provinces, divide-and-conquor when it comes to ideologies, social groups, etc.  His Conservative cousin Tim Hudak took this exact same ideology a step further with attacks on “foreign” workers and students during the recent Ontario election.

What the Right-Wing doesn’t understand is that competition isn’t about strength, it’s about eliminating the weak.  Think about it; being anti-public education is about reducing equal learning opportunities when knowledge and training CLEARLY provides an advantage in society.  Being anti-public healthcare is about reducing general access to medicine and treatment, which will invariably mean more sickness which, if anyone has forgotten is frequently contagious.

Creating a new level of competition within the Senate does the exact same thing on the top-end of the organizational scale, reducing its efficacy and, carried through, leads to the dismantling of democratic governance entirely.  This is a trend AWAY from where civilization has put us – increased collaboration and innovation through diversity; broadly accessible healthcare that results in healthier, longer-lived individuals; public education that fosters social cohesion and productivity.  That’s what happens in society – people have improved quality-of-life outcomes and end up producing less, but better enabled, offspring.

The grand irony in the Right Wing here or in the US as claiming to be the party of Christian Conservatives is that every behaviour they adopt proves Darwin right. 

The Mental Illness Epidemic, Societal Friction and Teaching to Fish

Life is about balance; always has been, always will be.  We must balance the needs of the few against the needs of the many; to be good parents or good children or good members of society, we need to take care of ourselves, but not at the expense of the greater good.

Libertarianism is facetious; every social species on earth employs some degree of inter-dependence.  That is, after all, what society is all about.  Socialism is impractical; society cannot be the final authority on each and every facet of each and every individual’s life one, because it’s resource-impossible and two, because such a system is ripe for corruption.  People say Communism was a failure, which it was, but they fail to see the reason why – we never HAD a properly Communist system, because such a system simply isn’t possible.

What we have now is a hodge-podge system that leans a little bit towards individual interest in some places, a bit towards the greater good in others.  As a society, we have people that are completely selfish, some that are strategically altruistic and some that are simply too dedicated to the whole, going so far as to neglect themselves.

The friction of an anti-social society where people are told they’re lesser-thans if they don’t have jobs but nobody is hiring, we all bemoan higher hydro rates but want to keep the aircon on during the day, people get pissy about social service costs but abuse the system is plain to see – we are cracking at the social and individual seams.

The clearest indicator of this social distress is mental health.  Anxiety and depression are epidemic in their scope, more so than even the stats tell us; gridlock, snippy Public Transit operators and customers, emotionally-frayed teachers, parents, students, bosses, etc. are all symptomatic of where we are going wrong.

The solution is tried-and-true – teach a man to fish, they are fed for a lifetime.  It’s the simplest of ideas but the hardest to implement, because we lack faith and patience.  If someone is difficult, it is because they are wrong.  If someone doesn’t comprehend, it is because they are dumb.  If I have a problem, it’s someone else’s fault.  Or, the opposite – if someone is difficult, I’m doing something wrong.  If someone doesn’t comprehend, it’s because I simply can’t communicate.  I’m stupid, because I can’t make myself understood.  Communication can never be one way - all parties must have equal standing and an equal share in realizing the connection to achieve success.
The unemployed can be taught to harness their skills; employers can be taught to harness the full potential of employees.  Students can be taught how to communicate.  Couples can learn to compromise.  Politicians can learn to work collectively towards greater results, rather than competing over a shrinking watering hole.  Everyone is capable of learning; the question is only what methodology, and which lessons will help them the most.

Our social difficulty lies not in aspiration so much as it does in follow-through.  Patience, communication, compromise, education – we can reduce government spending costs, increase quality of life outcomes, live happy and live longer if we just take the time to do so together.