A humble little blog about books, information, and other things that are good to know.

Posts tagged ‘culture’

The Demon-Haunted World

"The Demon-Haunted World" by Carl Sagan

Image via Nullius in Verba.

Title: The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle in the Dark

Author: Carl Sagan (my hero!)

Year of Publication: 1996

Genre Keywords: alien abduction, aliens, astrology, belief, credulity, critical thinking, culture, debunking, false memory, ghosts, hallucinations, history, human error, logic, reason, religion, science, skepticism, thought.

Summary: Brilliant popular scientist Carl Sagan takes on a culture of logical laziness in this readable and eloquent volume all about the errors we as human beings make in knowing and interpreting the world around us. He describes typical thinking errors like confirmation bias (our tendency to give more weight to information that supports what we want to believe), inconsistent logic, or confusion between correlation and causation. Along the way, he takes the American government and educational system to task for failing to create a citizen base with the knowledge required to think critically about information presented to them. He acknowledges, though, that it’s hard for governments to promote critical thought, lest they find themselves held accountable by a tough-to-manipulate electorate. For this reason and many others, Sagan argues convincingly, the world needs more skeptics, ready and willing to ask questions and ruthlessly demand the facts.

Who’ll Love It: If you’ve ever made the decision to doubt the received wisdom of any of the authorities in your world, at least some of Sagan’s words will resonate with you. Certainly he’s got a way with words and some highly amusing anecdotes. And fans of the Cosmos television series will practically hear his voice coming through the pages! But be warned – Sagan, like a proper skeptic, holds nothing sacred, and he does discuss ideas that will challenge any reader who takes anything on faith.

Carl Sagan is the reason Richard Dawkins and I agree on anything. Dawkins said in his review of the book, “My candidate for planetary ambassador can be none other than Carl Sagan himself”. Amen! (Can you say ‘amen’ to Richard Dawkins?)

Want More? If Sagan’s words resonate deeply with you, or if they whet your curiosity and you’d like to learn more, I recommend the Center for Inquiry as a great resource. I’ve been following their “Point of Inquiry” podcast, and I find it fascinating, intelligent, and appealing. And I’ve just learned they have another pocast, “Center Stage” – I’m headed straight to iTunes to sign on. Check out their website for more on the very ideas Carl Sagan talks about in this book.

No Assholes!

Okay, I get that we live in a society that tends to encourage self-centered behaviour. It’s definitely a “me-first” culture. But I still find it pretty incredible that somebody had to write this book.

 

The No Asshole Rule

Image via Mindfulness Matters.

 

Shouldn’t it be something close to second nature to not be an asshole? I mean, isn’t that a main tenet of most  major religions – treat others as you would have them treat you? Granted, lots of people have moved away from organized religion in our society, but even the most hardcore atheist would concede that treating others how you would want to be treated is a pretty reasonable rule of thumb.

This isn’t a spiritual deficit. This is just plain lack of consideration. People aren’t taking the time or the thought-effort to be considerate of others. Emphasis on freedom, living for now, and the pursuit of happiness has led to a mentality that it’s just plain okay not to consider the impact of your choices on somebody else.

(more…)

By A Lady

 

By A Lady

Image via Powells.

 

Title: By A Lady: Being the Adventures of an Enlightened American in Jane Austen’s England

Author: Amanda Elyot

Year of Publication: 2006

Genre Keywords: drama, friendship, Georgian England, historical, Jane Austen, marriage, nineteenth century, romance, social mores, time travel.

Summary: Twenty-first-century aspiring actress C.J. Welles has never felt like she belonged in this time and place. But just as she’s on the verge of winning the on-Broadway role of her literary heroine Jane Austen, she finds herself transported through time and space to Bath, England, circa 1801. Despite her better-than-average knowledge of period social mores, she finds herself in dire straits almost immediately, until a chance meeting lands her in the role of a lifetime: posing as Lady Dalrymple’s unfortunate niece, Cassandra. Suddenly doors are opening for her, and she finds herself connecting with all the most important people in Bath, including the intriguing Earl of Darlington, Owen Percival, and his sharp-witted cousin – Jane Austen herself! Could this nineteenth-century world be where C.J. really belongs? And if that’s true, can she keep her liberated, modern self from humiliation when the rules of polite society tolerate no deviation from a moral code as strict as it is unfamiliar?

Who’ll Love It: Fans of Jane Austen and similar period literature will eat this up. The writing style is just the right combination of modern and old-fashioned to set the tone without becoming hard to follow, and the concept is creative and well-executed. But you don’t have to know Jane Austen to enjoy this as a dramatic and somewhat sultry romance novel. A few scenes are pretty racy, though – some readers may wind up reaching for the smelling salts before the end.

 

Regency gown with kidskin shoes.

Image via Dragonfly Formals.

 

Fashion Backward: There’s a veritable cottage industry online for Jane Austen enthusiasts, and if you’re fascinated by any aspect of the story, information is just a Google search away. Personally, I recommend an image search for “Jane Austen dresses” or “Regency gowns” to get a firsthand look at the fashions, which play a fascinating role in the book. The author’s commentary on very revealing gowns designed to denote virginity (because they’re white!) really piqued my interest. And our time-traveling heroine eventually finds herself in a great deal of trouble when her enemies notice that she wears the same outfit all day long, never bothering to change from a morning gown to a tea dress!

Anne Frank and Me

Anne Frank and Me

Image via Fantastic Fiction.

Title: Anne Frank and Me

Author: Cherie Bennett and Jeff Gottesfeld

Year of Publication: 1997

Genre Keywords: coming of age, culture, family, friendship, high school, history, Holocaust, Judaism, religion, self-expression, teen, time travel, war, World War Two, young adult.

Summary: Teen blogger Nicole Burns is far too busy avoiding her homework, adoring the class hottie, and wishing she could get her kid sister out of her hair; she doesn’t have time to think about things that happened in generations-ago Europe. So she’s not particularly invested in her teacher’s guest speaker, a Holocaust survivor, or their trip to a nearby museum’s Holocaust exhibit. But then the sound of gunfire erupts in the museum, panic ensues, and Nicole awakens to find herself living the life of a Jewish girl in Nazi-occupied Paris. Her new life isn’t so very different from her old one – a gorgeous classmate she adores, an annoying little sister called Liz-Bette, friends and family and all the rest. But she’s also got a yellow star sewn to the front of her coat, and as she watches her freedoms dwindle as the war progresses, Nicole starts searching for a way to make her voice matter.

Who’ll Love It: Who wouldn’t? I recommend it to any reader. If you didn’t find Anne Frank particularly moving or wondered why all those musty old historical stories mattered, this book has the answer: because people who lived those historical experiences are not so different from us.  Conversely, if you’re acutely aware of the lingering evil effects of the Holocaust and the suffering it caused, you’ll find this book deeply moving and hard to put down.

Beyond Books: The novel Anne Frank and Me is based on a play with the same title. Look out for it! Even if there’s no local theatre company bringing this story to life on stage, it would definitely be interesting to consider your own life in light of Nicole’s story. If you traveled back in time to Holocaust-era Europe, what would your life look like? Who would be your parents, teachers, friends, and neighbours? How would you survive? Or would you survive at all?

A community theatre performance of Anne Frank and Me.

Image via Zona Gale Young People's Theatre (ZGYPT) at the Portage Center for the Arts.

Does My Head Look Big In This?

Does My Head Look Big In This?

Image via Journey Online.

Title: Does My Head Look Big In This?

Author: Randa Abdel-Fattah

Year of Publication: 2005

Genre Keywords: coming of age, culture, family, friendship, high school, identity, Islam, multiculturalism, popularity, religion, teen, women’s issues, young adult.

Summary: Amal is an Australian teen like any other . . . except that she’s a Muslim of Palestinian extraction who’s decided she’s ready to wear the hijab full-time. She knows it won’t be easy, attending a posh private school away from her Muslim friends while sporting such a hotly-contested marker of her Muslim identity, but she feels passionately about it. Now she’s dealing with all the usual trials and tribulations of high school – crushes, mean girls, friends with body-image issues, and more – but also with the judgments of teachers, friends, and strangers trying to identify what the hijab says about her life and placing her in the role of a full-time apologist for Islam, even in its most twisted and horrifying iterations.

Who’ll Love It: If you’re open to walking a mile in the shoes of a young Muslim woman, this book is a great way to do it. The central character is one of those rare gems – strong and smart and (mostly) confident, yet still believable. Readers who like a good relationship story that centers around friendships and family relationships (as opposed to romantic ones) will find an added bonus in the wide range of people supporting Amal as she tells her story.

Food For Thought: Does My Head Look Big In This? investigates some of the key assumptions many Westerners make when confronted with a Muslim, particularly a Muslim woman. For instance, when you see a woman in the hijab (or niqab, burqa, or what-have-you), do you assume she’s been forced to wear it by some man in her life? Do you stop to wonder how your assumption affects her or makes her feel? It’s worth spending some time with the idea.

Born to Discriminate?

My best friend and his wife had a baby girl last year. She’s a love, and I’m deeply honoured to be considered part of her family circle. Because we live in Canada, we all talk about “where we’re from” in terms of our ancestry; Baby Berryface (as I call her in the web world) is Portuguese on her father’s side and Italian on her mother’s. But her parents are teaching her to call me “Ciocia” – the Polish word for “aunt”. I’m her only ciocia.

Actually this is a baby with a diverse family of people who love her: two Filipino titas, a handful of zios and zias (Italian), a couple of tios and tias (Portuguese) – even a Portuguese padrinho (godfather). She’s also got a few straightforward English aunties and uncles, and a G-Momma who doesn’t think God would like being associated with her if the baby called her Godmother.

All this early-childhood diversity makes sense on a broad level: we are afraid of what’s unfamiliar to us. If you want to raise a kid who’s as unprejudiced as possible, exposing them to plenty of different types of people is a big help. Biologically, we’re wired to accept people who are like us. A recent look at the morality of babies tells us how deeply-rooted our prejudices can be:

There’s plenty of research showing that babies have within-group preferences: 3-month-olds prefer the faces of the race that is most familiar to them to those of other races; 11-month-olds prefer individuals who share their own taste in food and expect these individuals to be nicer than those with different tastes; 12-month-olds prefer to learn from someone who speaks their own language over someone who speaks a foreign language.

Two babies from different races.

Image via the National Geographic Channel's "Science of Babies" series.

But if you’re about to argue that nature is telling us not to mingle with the Other, forget it: I’m not buying. In the evolutionary past, it made sense to fear people who didn’t look like you, since they were probably your tribe or group’s competition for scarce resources. We’re past that today. And we’re living in a multicultural society, where a person who looks nothing like you is as likely to be your next-door neighbour, your project partner, or your kid’s teacher as your competitor. Put simply, everybody has to be able to get along and see past the surface differences that are no longer a reliable indicator of team-membership.

And we’re also wired to do that, incidentally. From the same article:

Studies with young children have found that once they are segregated into different groups — even under the most arbitrary of schemes, like wearing different colored T-shirts — they eagerly favor their own groups in their attitudes and their actions.

Put a black child and a white child together and place the emphasis on race, and they’ll see each other as . . . well, Other. But put them both in yellow shirts and emphasize shirt colour, and suddenly they become The Same. Race disappears in the face of team membership. Relationship takes priority.

What can we do to encourage more tolerant behaviour, less racialized judgment, and better co-operation between racialized groups? For one thing, quit racializing them. Take a close look at the paragraph above – for race to be what matters, we the adults have to place emphasis on it. Place emphasis on T-shirt colour and that’ll be what matters instead. I’m in favour of teaching children about their ancestral heritage – and at the same time exposing them to other people’s racial heritage too, and making it every bit as interesting as your own. Let kids be aware of the differences we all have, because that builds familiarity and tolerance and comfort. That’s the underpinning of Baby Berryface’s multicultural extended family – everybody around her is different, but they’re not foreign to her because she knows them well.

But don’t make racial and cultural difference your overt agenda: difference isn’t what matters. What matters is how we’re all on the same team, searching for the same things – wearing the same T-shirts, if you will. Who was it who said, “We may have come over on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now”?

Little girl with books.

Image via Rolling Prairie Library System.

Here are some ways you can take advantage of your local library to encourage cross-cultural understanding in your kids at any age – it’s never too early or too late.

  • First, the obvious. Find books about children from various cultures or racial groups. Their race doesn’t have to be the focus of the story; in fact, it’s best if it’s not something the story revolves around, but  just an ancillary fact. But any story about a different culture, race, or religion can build an understanding of different sorts of people.
  • Check yourself. What are your attitudes about different cultures? If you’ve got nasty beliefs about another culture or race, your attitudes are likely to transfer down to your children. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to educate yourself about the virtues of a culture you find unsettlingly unfamiliar.
  • Meet your librarian. Librarians are generally very friendly people. Interact with us. We like it. Most of us are pretty racially open-minded too. (Well, at least my generation – I’m not really experienced enough with the previous generation of librarians to make any sort of pronouncement on their racial tolerance.) If you don’t have any opportunities to introduce your children to real-world people who look different from them, a librarian can be a good (and very understanding) starting place. We can also help you find good books about . . . well, anything, come to think of it.
  • Join in! Libraries have loads of children’s programming, from storytimes to crafting sessions to summer reading clubs. Even if the content has nothing to do with race, religion, or culture, joining in with other children who may not look or live like your own can boost tolerance and make the unfamiliar more familiar.
  • Embrace community. Check out your community events listings at the library. Often libraries will get involved in events that celebrate different cultures. My childhood community center often hosted a pavilion in Carabram to introduce the food, dance, dress, and customs of another culture. Often they’ll also host events to showcase a particular cultural event – say, a Diwali celebration or a Black History Month exhibition or some such. Even if an event is aimed at an adult crowd, if it interests you, take it in. You can always transmit the experience to your child(ren) via dinner table conversation.

Children are generally pretty good at learning whatever their exposure teaches them. If they’re exposed to racist attitudes or they see other groups treated with fear and distrust, they’ll learn to be fearful and distrustful. But given the opportunity to become familiar with different kinds of people, they generally learn to be open-minded and open-hearted.

We might well be born to discriminate. But fortunately, we’re also born to evolve above it.

Tag Cloud