Is This Progress? This Is Progress.

What Is Kaputall?

Oxford defines Kaput as "broken and useless; no longer working or effective" - similar to our unbalanced economic system. This is a page dedicated to the intersection of capitalism and social, political, and environmental problems.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Let's Talk About Mental Health

When the Germanwings flight 9525 smashed into the French Alps on Tuesday, the routine investigative journalism followed suit with suggestions of poor weather and terrorism. The revelations yesterday that the plane was deliberately crashed by the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, resulted in a deluge of articles about depression, many of which were problematic.

On the way to work this morning I heard an aviation safety expert talking about the fact that there are very few checks on the mental health of flight staff. This is generally attributed to the difficulty in assessing mental health, though other factors like cost and effectiveness are certainly important. The state of Lubitz at the time, as well as his history with depression, have become the centre of attention.

While it is a sensational story (and a tragedy), mental health carries many stigmas today. Both on social media and in articles from reputable journalists there has been an emphasis on shaming Lubitz for his depression. Before I go any further, I will say that handling depression by flying an airpline full of passengers into the side of a mountain is not an appropriate option. What I want to talk about here is not the violent final act, but the context in which it took place - in shame and secrecy.

To me it is unfortunate that we support Bell's Let's Talk campaign about mental health but then fall into the trappings of shaming people with mental health problems. Depression is real. Just because it cannot be easily observed, diagnosed, treated, or quantified doesn't mean it is not to be taken seriously (or outright rejected).

Attitudes that depression is a sign of weakness promote the further desire to keep it secret. If people can't get help, or will lose their jobs because of it, then the culture of secrecy continues. In the case of Lubitz, a voluntary disclosure system which would allow him leave from work would have prevented him from flying the plane without him losing his career. These are the types of changes that we need to contemplate, and we have to move beyond characterising Lubitz by his depression.

The reality is that depression is the most common form of mental illness. In some form or another, virtually everyone is affected by depression. Accurate statistics are hard to come by, but we all experience significant changes in mood and character. According to the CMHA, 8 per cent of Canadians experience serious depression and suicide is one of the leading causes of death for people from adolescence to middle age.

Plenty of people with depression live very productive lives. They can be our greatest artists, our leaders of commerce, and our loved ones. It comes down to getting support in the time of need - help without reprisal. So let's get real about mental health and stop stigmatising people who already feel like they don't have many options.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

A New Cult of the Personality?

We're all familiar with the philosophical question about a tree falling in the forest. But what about a modern permutation? If you have a deep thought, a frustration, or an accomplishment - is it real if you don't share it on social media?

Upon first reading, that may seem ridiculous, but let that set in. This something I've been thinking about recently given all the noise made about the banning of selfie sticks in tourist destinations around the world. While people argue about safety issues, isolation in public spaces, and boorish ettiquette, I can't help but think about the fact that the selfie stick is a tool in advancing the ongoing construction of our self-image. While some sharing is more personal (sending a text message for example), much of the sharing of pictures is done through social media.

I write this post fully cognizant of the fact that I participate in this culture. It's another modern mutation, this time of the cult of personality. In the traditional sense, this referred to the deification of leaders (commonly Stalin or Mao), aggrandising their accomplishments and character. Typically this was done in print, with newspapers and pamphlets leading the charge. Think of the rather laughable exploits of Kim Jong Il, available here.

In our modern world, we use the internet to share our exploits. And sometimes to exaggerate them. Or outright lie about them. I think a reasonable question to ask ourselves is, are we often doing things just to share them on social media? Is the attention that we get from these accomplishments a large part of our motivation? There has been rising interest in climbing Mount Everest, and I'd posit that a large part of this is the ability to share your accomplishment with others. It also explains the popularity of apps that share fitness accomplishments like Strava.

The phenomenon of building our online profiles is called crafting. There was a lot in the news about crafting last year, and I am curious as to why the talk of crafting hasn't been grafted into the current debate about selfies. We consume media about our friends and infer much about their interests, values, and personalities through their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or other social media.

Here's a case study about the impacts of crafting. I read a great article last week about how people are apt to share articles, often poorly researched, about science in order to look like they are knowledgeable or interested in science. There is a wide proliferation, accordingly, of junk science that has survived on account of crafting.

Because I am comfortable enough with criticism, I've taken a look back on my own Facebook profile to look at what I have been sharing. In the past month or so, my posts have been related to:

Sharing articles that broadcast my values (11 times)
Adding photos that show I was in Europe and Asia (4 times)
Promoting my blog (3 times)
Getting a new job (1 times)
Epic walking (1 time)
A picture of a ticket to the first show my band played (1 time)

These examples show what I evidently want others to see of me - someone who likes travel, writing, politics, music, and being a teacher. I'd encourage you to take a look at your wall and see what you have shared.

I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with living a life of sharing on social media. I think there is a possible concern with doing it without being aware of what you're doing. I frankly believe it would be impossible to engage with social media without ever broadcasting who you are. Ultimately, some elements of crafting are more overt or pernicious than others, but it is inescapable in the online world. I'll just note that I think it's worthwhile reflecting on what it means to share, before you share.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Should Life be Life?

Yesterday Justin Trudeau spoke on the new legislation that the Conservatives have proposed, the controversial Bill C-51. He caused quite a stir. A stir that, in my opinion, was much anticipated. This bill, which has received virtually unanimous criticism from experts in law, has been slowly boiling over in this, an all important election year. The injection of partisan politics in the judiciary is as dangerous as it is ill-advised. Unfortunately, it is also not unprecedented - particularly from Harper.

Harper has produced a bill that is designed to make it much more difficult to rehabilitate Canadians who have offended. Specifically, he is attacking the parole board with a campaign called "Life is Life", in which he suggests that someone charged with a life sentence should never have the opportunity leave prison. The claim has been repeated that violent offenders are getting out and that this deeply endangers our society. Much like the government's discourse on terrorism, this is all about building fear.

Our current judicial system is, like all systems, imperfect. We have high rates of incarceration for First Nations. We have a systemic problem with maintaining our federal penal infrastructure. There have been numerous cases where prison guards have not intervened in suicides. Among these problems is the rare person who comes out of prison for a murder charge who reoffends. While non-violent crime recidivism rates are generally about 40 per cent, those who are on parole after a murder sentence reoffend at one per cent. That means that most who go through the penal system are capable of following their conditions of parole and reintegrating into society.

Fundamentally, that is the point of prison. Or so I thought. There are broadly two theories on the purpose of correctional facilities.

The first posits that prison should be to rehabilitate those who have erred. This means that prisons need to be connected to the world. There needs to be a cultural exchange between those on the inside and wider society. It also includes having rewards for personal development and good behaviour.

Another way of looking at prisons is that they are designed to isolate segments of the population from society. As mentioned before, Canada has a problem where we hold onto racial segregation by formalising it through prisons. The same is true of black people in the United States. The goal here is to criminalise a segment of the population and make it exceptionally difficult for them to integrate or reintegrate, even if their crimes were non-violent (such as with drugs or theft).

If we look at both models, we see a significant ideological divide - one where we see prison as a vehicle to aid those who are in need, another serving to propagate isolation. In the case of Canadian political discourse, there should be no question where our government stands. This newest bill is just part of a long stream of initiatives designed to target populations and perpetuate their stay in Canadian prisons. The Canadians have championed their tough on crime stance, even when it is consistently shown that tough on crime doesn't lead to more peaceful societies. And it has to be asked: what is the impact on the incarcerated? Why should someone who has committed a violent crime be deprived of the opportunity to better himself or herself?

We should all be concerned that our government is introducing this bill in order to have wider sweeping powers to prosecute various groups, not the least of which including "terrorists". Harper wants to increase the powers of both the RCMP and CSIS without adding greater oversight. Moreover, he wants to implicate the Ministry of Public Safety in the judiciary by having them involved in parole decisions. These changes should worry Canadians deeply.

I don't trust the Conservatives with our judicial system and we do not need further steps toward a police state. Hopefully Canadians will resist this bill and join in with experts in law and society in decrying this thinly veiled attack on our freedoms. I take solace in knowing that, ultimately, the liklihood of this legislation going anywhere is minimal. I'm looking foward to the October election.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

The State of Post-Secondary Education in Canada

Last night contract staff and teaching assistants at York University in Toronto voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action. Of course this has become a huge story and, as a York alumnus, it's been all over my news feed. I heard an unfortunate interview on CBC's Metro Morning with university president Mamdouh Shoukri. While the debate about contract instructors is legitimate, I feel that in large part the wider context of what is happening with universities is being relegated to the background. The changing role of university is what I'd like to address in today's post.

Universities have existed for roughly a millenium. During most of that time, their role remained rather constant: providing society's elite with tools to become critical thinkers, thus empowering those who revolutionised fields of study like philosophy. Most universities were places to study liberal arts - politics, anthropology, religion, and history. In the nineteenth century economics and sociology came into the fold.

The latter half of the twentieth century saw universities grow modestly as professional schools expanded. With this came, in my opinion, a conflation between university and job training - such that now it is considered a smart career move to go to university, even if it's not for specific training in one domain or another. Stundets are going to university at unprecedented rates. However, there is a great amount of dismay amongst university graduates (myself included in 2008) when there is no work, save for poorly paid internships, service jobs, or work outside their chosen field. What's worse is that graduates have been saddled with debt, often called good debt because it is supposed to help them in the future.

Seldom are we asking ourselves as a society: what should the role of higher education be? Whereas universities used to be a place of free exploration of the world around us (natural and human), they have come to be viewed as conveyor belts for employment - a fast track to success. Most students who go to university are doing so because they feel it is part of reaching up in obtaining better career options or earning potential. Universities, governments, media, and parents are all to blame for propagating educational inflation, a race wherein we protect ourselves from underemployment by seeking more and more formal schooling.

The benefactors of this have not been students, or even the economy. Look at any report from Stats Canada and you'll see that new graduates are largely underemployed or unemployed (and unhappy). I'd argue that educational inflation has really served the best interest of universities. As a sector, education has grown year over year for some time now. A good marker of university success is the number of cranes erecting new buildings on campuses across the country. Not surprisingly, this has led to the further transformation of universities not only into career assembly lines but also into places to party. In the United States there is a growing demand for universities to provide an attractive lifestyle: private pools, tanning services, and luxury accomodations on campus.

I think that a few changes should be made to the university model.

University should be close to free and more difficult to get into: While this may sound elitist, universities should not be accepting virtually everyone so long as they have money. Instead, there should be a greater emphasis on students entering university based on grades, community service, or affirmative action.

Universities shouldn't be marketed aggresively: I don't see any reason why university should be billed as better than other forms of career training. It'd be also helpful if universities weren't seen as conveyor belts for the job market. The added bonus of this would be that universities could ease up on their oft-sketchy relationships with the corporate world.

University should focus on independent learning and critical thinking: Students should be exploring the world around them through seminars, online forums, papers, and workshops - not in lecture halls with four hundred other students. University should be about developing abilities to reason and communicate, not to absorb information.

In Europe, where these values are closer to the norm, university attendance is low and there is not the same expectation that a degree will lead to employment. This also helps make post-secondary education more accessible. In most of Canada and the United States, tuition is prohibitively high (and rising) which prevents bright students who happen to be poor from going to school.

Ultimately, we have a lot to think about as a society when it comes to education. This is by no means an answer, but it is an attempt to start a conversation. Let's stop building up the university experience and leaving so many young people disappointed that there isn't a job waiting for them afterward.