Monthly Archives: November 2012

In Flanders Fields


In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

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

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

~Lt Col John McCrae (3 May 1915)

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Labels everywhere


Liberal.  Conservative.  Christian.  Atheist.  Feminist.  Humanist.     As you read each of those words, did any thoughts come to mind?  Did any of those words make you feel a flash of some emotion?

Classification is the key to human speech.  Our ability to identify and categorize things is what allows us to assign words to them.  Some of those words are used to describe a particular item, while others are used to describe a set of beliefs or values.  They form the basis of our communication structure.

Words are useful for simplifying conversation.  When someone asks you about yourself, rather than go into a long-winded explanation of your belief structure, you can simply tell them, “Oh I’m a [x].”

At a glance there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with that.  But what if the person you’re speaking with has a different understanding of what [x] means and what it stands for?  Sure all of the words I listed above have an accepted dictionary definition, but how many of us actually know what those formal definitions are?  Each of us assigns our own meaning and interpretation to those words.  Some words even have more than one definition.

Liberal.  Does that mean a supporter or member of the Liberal Party of Canada?  Or does it just describe a set of social values?  Is it the modern interpretation of the word?  Or does it refer to classical liberalism?  How I respond to someone who says, “Oh I’m a liberal” will vary greatly depending on how I choose to interpret their usage of the word.  How I interpret it may not be how they meant it.  They may have a completely different concept of what the word means, unique to only them.

Apart from the obvious misunderstandings that can arise from different definitions of a word, there is the larger issue that comes from how people use those words.  It’s one thing to use a word to describe your beliefs.  It’s quite another to turn that word into a symbol of your beliefs.  Too often I see people find a label that fits them, and then immediately internalize that word.  They make that label a part of their identity.  Once that happens, all rational discussion on a topic ends.

It’s no longer a description of an idea, it’s now a key component of their very being.  Any attempt you make to criticize the idea will be viewed as a personal attack instead.  People become defensive and stubborn and dig into their position.  They fight tooth and nail to defend themselves and their label, without giving any more thought to the ideas behind that label.

To give an example, I recently became involved in a short-lived discussion with someone who called themselves a feminist.   When I said that I didn’t like the level of misandry that seemed to be so prevalent in modern feminism, the attack that followed was immediate and brutal.  She berated me for accusing her of hating men, then went into a long tirade with examples of how she didn’t had great men in her life whom she loved and didn’t hate.  She called me a disgrace to women and a traitor to the sisterhood for daring to question the holy word of feminism.  Eventually she ended her rant by storming off in a huff.

This is what happens when people internalize their labels.  I entered that conversation wanting to have an open exchange of ideas with someone about their beliefs.  I was looking for an open and honest discussion of the pros and cons of the feminist movement, and its place in our society.  Instead, that person took a simple question as a personal affront.  Rather than engaging me in discussion and perhaps pointing out where I was mistaken, she immediately became defensive and locked into her position.  In her frantic attempts to defend her label, she lost a perfect opportunity to educate someone who was willing to learn about her beliefs.

I see this scenario playing out time and again in all areas of life.  People are so caught up in defending their labels, that they have completely lost sight of the ideas behind them.  By using these words to define themselves, instead of just to describe a set of beliefs, they can no longer hear criticism of the idea without seeing it as a criticism of their identity.  When people become entrenched in defending a label, they are closed to any discussion of the idea.

Without open discussion of ideas, our society is doomed to failure, permanently divided.  Labels are an integral part of human communication, and that’s never going to change.  All that I can ask is that people be aware of how they use them.  Remember that the label does not define you.  It only describes one part of you.  Well-intentioned criticism of an idea that you believe in, is not a criticism of you.

Opting Out of Remembrance Day


A recent controversy being discussed in the Canadian media is the fact that parents can ask that their children be allowed to “opt-out” of school Remembrance Day ceremonies.

Remembrance Day, or Armistice Day as it is sometimes known, is observed on November 11 in most commonwealth countries around the world.  The day and time – the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – were chosen to commemorate the official end to hostilities in the First World War.  The primary purpose of the day though, is to honour the fallen soldiers who were not lucky enough to return home from the battlegrounds in Europe.  Over time the ceremony has evolved and it is now generally a time to remember and pay homage to all of our veterans both living and dead.  It is one day of the year when the country comes together in a moment of silence to pay respect to the soldiers who have given their lives, and the soldiers who continue to risk their lives, to protect their fellow citizens.

For me, Remembrance Day goes far beyond honouring our veterans and their fallen comrades.  To me it is about freedom.  That is the cause that these brave men and women fought and died for.  It is a cause that is shared by soldier and civilian alike and fought for by both, albeit in different ways.  It stretches back well before the two great wars.  It’s a battle that has been fought continuously since the dawn on human civilization.  It is a perpetuation of the struggle between those who would live free and those who wish to control them.

Freedom is a cause that is so much bigger than the conflicts of the 21st Century.   The battle has raged for millennia, being fought between nations, within nations and even within families.  Governments have been toppled, nations conquered and families torn apart.

Freedom is such a simple word, but it seems to be a surprisingly difficult concept for many to understand.  Freedom isn’t about supporting the rights of only the people whose opinions and beliefs of those with whom you agree.  Freedom is about supporting the rights of everyone, especially those with whom you disagree.

The outcry caused by this rarely used school policy has clearly shown how little some people understand the true meaning of freedom.  There have been calls to make the ceremonies mandatory, to ‘force’ people to pay their respects on Remembrance Day.   These vocal few wish to honour the sacrifices of those who died in the name of freedom by taking away a freedom.

It needs to be pointed out that there are two very different groups who may choose to opt-out.  The first group is made up of those who are entirely opposed to Remembrance Day, be it religious, social or other reasons.  While I don’t agree with their position, I wholeheartedly support their right to it.   Opponents to this school policy claim that allowing students to opt-out of the ceremony goes against everything that our soldiers have fought and died for.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite.  Those who choose to opt-out are paying the highest honour to the men and women who have sacrificed their lives.  They are exercising the very freedom that those brave souls fought and died for.

The second group are those people who fully support the day, but for whatever reason can’t or don’t want to attend a ceremony.  While Remembrance Day services are generally a good thing, it needs to be remembered that the pomp and tradition are really only the trimmings.  The meat of the day is taking the time to appreciate the freedoms that we currently enjoy and giving thanks to all the people throughout history who have fought and died for those freedoms.   It’s not necessary to attend a ceremony to appreciate and honour those sacrifices.   We all have the right to pay our respects in our own way, and the traditional Remembrance Day service is only one possible way to do so.

Tomorrow morning at 11:00, while I observe a moment of silence, I will not only pay my respects to the fallen, I will also acknowledge the people who are choosing not to observe that moment.  Those people are the proof that we still have at least some freedoms left for which to give thanks.