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RIP, Christopher Hitchens December 16, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Religion.
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Christopher Hitchens has passed away. The world has lost a man of tremendous intellect, eloquence, and reason. Since being diagnosed with esophogeal cancer last year, he has faced his prognosis and his mortality with nothing but courage and dignity. Despite his imminent death, he never sought for solace in superstitions or illusions, nor did he fall back on the crutches of religion. Instead, he chose to face it head-on.

“The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.”
― Christopher Hitchens

In his life, Hitchens bravely fought to promote critical thinking and rationalism, making countless contributions to the social, moral, and political sciences. In his death, Hitchens has taught us how to live: there is no need to dwell on death and take comfort in the illusions of an afterlife; instead, we should relentlessly pursue and celebrate life – appreciating it for its fleeting and infinitesimal nature.

RIP Christopher Hitchens. You will be missed.

Just when you thought things couldn’t get more messed up November 19, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, Religion.
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10 comments

Just when you thought that forcing women to shroud their bodies and hair in loose black cloth wasn’t bad enough, a moral committee in Saudi Arabia has threatened to force women to cover up their “sexy eyes”. Yet again, extreme conservatives have demonstrated the extent of their ridiculousness – to go so far as to blame “sexy eyes” for tempting men.

So what has this got to do with us normal people? After all, I’m pretty sure that even the most socially conservative person that you or I know would not agree with the committee’s threats. Before we all pat ourselves on the backs for being more progressive than the Saudi moral committee, let’s take a look at our own society, or even at Western society. Are we really that much better than them?

There are two main themes that we all still have in common. The first is blame. In Saudi Arabia and in Singapore alike, it is still not uncommon for women to be blamed for the actions and choices of men. While in a conservative Middle Eastern society, rape may be blamed on a woman’s sexy eyes or tempting ankles, our “traditional Asian”, Western influenced society is equally guilty of blaming rape on a woman’s attire or behavior. In both situations, instead of focusing on the actions and choices of the perpetrator, people choose to hold the victim accountable. Maybe it is simply easier to blame the sexiness of eyes and ankles and cleavage and thighs, than to face the fact that *gasp* men have control over where they stick their genitalia?

The second theme is control. Over and beyond supposed rape prevention, dictating how a woman should and should not dress means assuming that you have the right to control her actions. Control is by no means limited to punishment by stoning (or whatever medieval means we imagine “backward” countries to utilize). Threats of hell, stigmatization, and shame are used to punish women who show more skin that what is deemed acceptable. (Funnily enough, in modern society, we not only punish women for dressing too sexy, we also disregard women who are not sexy enough.) Of course, men are not immune to such judgment either, but I would contend that there is a far higher social price to pay for being a slut than a stud, and there is a far stronger social pressure on women to dress sexy-but-not-too-sexy.

“Decency” is a poor excuse. Decency according to whose standards: the religious police?  The government? Religious leaders? Who gave them the authority to decide what should be considered decent, and who are they to decide that women’s bodies should be subject to stricter scrutiny than men’s? Such control is manifested most obviously in conservative Islamic societies whose laws demand that women (against all respect for reason, safety, or culture) cover their entire bodies. But it also manifests in Western society when we have absurd policies about public breastfeeding, or when everybody freaks out when a nipple appears on national television. It’s almost as if a woman’s body is always defined as sexual, never mind the fact that we use our bodies to dance, swim, run, and nurse infants, the sole purpose of exposing our skin is for the viewing pleasure of men, right?!? Pair that view together with a sexually repressive society and you get a ridiculous obsession with policing and judging women’s attire.

Ultimately, it’s a no brainer that women in Western society and Singapore’s society enjoy more freedoms than our Saudi counterparts. But the next time you see a rape victim being accused of “asking for it” because of her sexy dress, don’t forget that the very same argument can be made for a fully niqab-ed women with sexy eyes. Perhaps the extreme victim blaming and control over women that we hear about in Saudi Arabia will force us to see the absurdity of our own society’s attempts to blame and control women.

Who will the moderates choose? April 26, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Liberalism v Conservativism, Politics, Religion, Singapore.
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7 comments

It’s already a given that hard-line conservatives will come running to Vivian Balakrishnan’s call to arms when he decided to bring up the issue of Vincent Wijeysingha’s sexual orientation and the accusation that the SDP has a “gay agenda”. It doesn’t matter if it was an ad hominem attack and it doesn’t matter if the PAP attempts to retract his statements. His message has already been sent and it rings clearly in the hearts and minds of staunch conservative Christians: your fellow believer needs your vote, especially now that he is running against a homosexual.

On the other end of the political spectrum, I’m sure that this incident of Vivian rearing his ugly homophobic head has pretty much secured the vote for the opposition for the liberal-inclined residents of Holland-Bukit Timah. Any apprehension or indecision about who to vote for has pretty much disappeared for these people. The answer is now simple: vote for those who did not resort to underhanded, sneaky, homophobia-motivated religiously-aligned smear campaigns to direct attention away from questions about their own competence.

But despite the huge wave of criticisms against Vivian’s gutter politics that has suddenly taken over the internet, and despite the real and scary threat of a growing hard-line conservative streak amongst the Christian elite, I’m convinced that these people make up but a minority of residents. The people who really hold the fate of Holland-Bukit Timah in their hands are not the gay activists or the Thio Li-Ann’s, but the religious and social moderates who are now finding themselves having to make a real choice for the first time.

In any other elections, these moderates would be politically apathetic or slight PAP-leaning, content with the status quo that lets them live in relative comfort. But now that Vivian has resorted to such unsavoury tactics, their educated, rational minds can no longer reconcile with what their PAP candidate is spouting out: making irrelevant insinuations about the opponent’s sexual orientation, oblique and clandestine remarks about an “agenda”, and rambling innuendos accusing the opponent of having something to hide. It’s now not as simple as voting for the status quo anymore

If you are a social/religious moderate from Holland-Bukit Timah, I implore you to make your choice wisely. Yes, on the one hand, you may have been brought up to believe homosexuality is wrong, and perhaps you still do. But on the other hand, surely you don’t believe that one’s sexual orientation has any bearing on one’s ability to be a good MP, and of course you don’t believe the right-wing conservatives’ fearmongering attempts to associate homosexuality with paedophilia. Moreover, surely you see through the personal attacks and insinuations and realize that Vivian has simply dodged criticisms against him and has yet again avoided a direct confrontation with the opposition in the form of a debate.

Now that religion and sexual orientation have been brought into politics, there are many more pertinent questions to ask yourself – magnitudes of importance greater than a single candidate’s sexual orientation:

  • Do you think religious-secular relations in Singapore will ever be the same again if Vivian’s actions are not only condoned, but rewarded in the form of voting him into parliament?
  • Do you think the 377A issue is really more important that the issues of the growing income gap between rich and poor or the generous monetary rewards given to ministers despite their glaring inadequacies? Are you willing to let Vivian’s strategy of misdirection and pandering to homophobia work in making you forget about these issues?

I trust and believe that most of the people in Holland-Bukit Timah have maturity and intellect to see what is really going on here. This is their chance to step up and show the rest of us what they will and will not tolerate in politics. I am nervous but eager to see who the Holland-Bukit Timah residents will choose, for it will be telling of just how much (or how little) religious persuasion influences politics and its resulting strain on the secular public sphere.

The burka ban part 4: The perils of multiculturalism April 15, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International, Religion, Society.
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4 comments

If you are a Singaporean, chances are that all your life you have been told about the wonders of multiculturalism. After all, multiculturalism is that marvelous notion that allows people of all religions and races to live together peacefully while still being able to practice their own cultures and beliefs. Don’t get me wrong, in some ways I think multiculturalism is great. Diversity should not only be tolerated, but also celebrated.

But multiculturalism – with its insistence that all cultures have the right to flourish in a multi-religious multi-racial society – is far from perfect. When there is no pressure to compromise one’s culture or one’s comfort zone in favor of assimilation, “sticking to your own kind” becomes the norm. It becomes easy to develop a laissez faire attitude towards the segmentation of society according to racial or religious lines, leaving room for not only social segregation, but also economic segregation along these lines as a result of the ghettoisation of certain social groups.

You’d think that as a liberal, it is rather odd of me to talk about the negative aspects of multiculturalism. Surely the alternative – assimilation – impinges on an individual’s right to live life as he sees fit? But ironically, multiculturalism does not necessarily mean greater freedom for the individual either. Culture itself is a form of social pressure, and when a culture endorses illiberal teachings such as misogyny or homophobia onto its members, a society’s multicultural, politically correct stance prevents us from intervening, and as a result indirectly supports such unfair teachings as well.

In countries like the UK where multiculturalism is the state policy, tolerance for ethnic communities doing their own thing has resulted in the segregation of society, the loss of a national or local identity, and could even contribute to the increased radicalization of Muslims. Tolerance and political correctness have resulted in the reluctance to intervene when cultural teachings and practices have gone out of hand, because “multiculturalism” has made it difficult to draw that line between what is respect for a culture and what is simply unacceptable to society as a whole. Similarly, in the case of the burka, even though the notion of requiring women to be shrouded in black cloth is unthinkable to most of us, someone brought up to believe that critiquing any aspect of culture is racist, anti-religion or politically incorrect would never dare to cause offense by speaking up.

A key contradiction between multiculturalism and social cohesion is the fact that while multiculturalism encourages us to embrace the fact that there are different cultures, religions and beliefs, in order for society to function, we need to be able to ignore these very differences and see each other as individuals. If every ethnic community decided to promote the anti-social values of exclusivity and culture-specific values, the multicultural “society” would be less of a society, and more like several cultural groups leading parallel but separate existences. How does this relate to the French burka ban? France does not practice multiculturalism. Instead, it exalts the secular values of liberty, equality and fraternity. By recognizing a set of universal principles that are over and above cultural and religious identities, it seeks to recognize citizens as Frenchmen and Frenchwomen first and foremost, devoid of racial and religious particularities.
The burka. (Source: bbc.co.uk)

The burka flies directly in the face of these principles. Symbolically, it is about as anti-liberty as an article of clothing can get – women are symbolically dehumanized to the public eye, reduced to a mere shapeless faceless blob devoid of physical indications of personhood. Moreover, such clothing not only is a clear and defiant statement of cultural difference, it also poses a real barrier to interpersonal communication – something which is essential for an integrative and cohesive society. Seemingly insignificant human gestures of friendliness and social bonding: an exchange of a meaningful glance or the sharing of a spontaneous smile or the simple mirroring of expressions in response to a shared experience, are now rendered impossible due to the physical barrier of the face veil. If that is not the literal embodiment of “anti-social” then I don’t know what is. (Take a look at the image and honestly say that such a garment has no influence over your desire to be “neighborly” with the woman underneath) What’s left is the sense of uneasiness and alienation that can only lead to a chasm between cultures. France may not have my full support for its burka ban, but its principles behind it certainly aren’t wrong.

The burka ban part 1: Symbolism and meaning

The burka ban part 2: Tolerance of religion or tolerance of oppression?

The burka ban part 3: The problem with cultural relativism

The burka ban part 3: The problem with cultural relativism April 14, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International, Liberalism v Conservativism, Politics, Religion, Society.
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Yesterday, I alluded to arguments made on the basis of cultural relativism: the idea that culture is sacred and that criticisms of cultural practices coming from outsiders are not valid as those judgments are unfairly made based on an outsiders’ skewed perspectives. From a cultural relativist’s point of view, we cannot describe the burka as oppressive or sexist, because we are using our own biased standards of sexism to judge the practice of another culture. Whilst there is some value to cultural relativism – the notion that no culture is really superior or inferior to others comes to mind – it is also extremely problematic because from this viewpoint, religions and cultures can never be blamed for any of their practices, no matter how racist, misogynistic or homophobic; they are simply immune.

Why should they be granted such immunity? Because these practices have been conserved for decades or centuries? Well, forced marriages, bride snatching, honor killings, female genital mutilation and the practice of sati have been around for centuries too, and I have yet to come across any civilized person who would dare to suggest that these practices should be preserved for cultural value.

The key flaw in the cultural relativist’s argument is the assumption that the preservation of a culture’s status quo is desirable in itself. Perhaps based on the argument that since the practice has been around for so long, or is practiced by so many people, there must be some inherent value in it. But the problem is that no culture is perfect. In fact, all cultures are extremely imperfect, and all societies can be changed for the better.

Take for example the issue of slavery. Today, most societies recognize slavery as a crime against humanity; an atrocious practice that dehumanizes people, where people are not recognized as individuals but as property; denied of choice and freedom simply because they were born into an unfortunate circumstance with an unfortunate skin tone. Back in the 1800s, slavery was the norm and it never even crossed anyone’s mind to consider the personhood of the slave. In fact, slavery was in a way “functional” for society. I would hate to imagine what would have happened if no one questioned the status quo, on the basis that “slavery has been working fine for the past century, why change it?”

Given this (literally) conservative mindset, it is thus no wonder that some women are themselves proponents of the burka, or even practices like female genital mutilation and forced marriages. That is the desired outcome of indoctrination: to be brought up to believe only one version of the truth and to never question the status quo, to assume that your culture as it is right now is perfect.

I would ask a cultural relativist: do you not think we are not more morally enlightened today compared to the past? Is it not possible for one culture to be more morally enlightened than another, given that some cultures have unquestioningly stuck to the practices of the past whilst others have critically examined them and made room for individual rights and freedoms? Then why oppose cultural change, if it can be for the better?

The enemy isn’t Islam, neither is it westernization. The enemy is and always has been social inequality. Throughout the centuries, one thing that almost all cultures have in common is the desire for social progress, defined by the breaking down of barriers to equality. From the abolition of slavery and Jim Crow laws, to the civil rights movement, to the ending of apartheid, to the feminist movement – it is clear that there is a human desire to be respected as an individual and not to be denied choices and opportunities based on one’s class, race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. In this way, addressing the burka problem, even if you may not agree with the means of implementation, is a necessary and welcome form of social progress.

It is time that we stop hiding behind cultural relativism and political correctness and start recognizing what the burka and the culture behind it means: a tool to limit the self actualization of women and a climate of threats and punishment if a woman decides not to comply with prescribed gender roles.

The burka ban part 1: Symbolism and meaning

The burka ban part 2: Tolerance of religion or tolerance of oppression?

The burka ban part 4: The perils of multiculturalism

The burka ban part 2: Tolerance of religion or tolerance of oppression? April 13, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International, Politics, Religion, Society.
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Many have argued that the burka ban reflects an intolerance of Islam and is a form of restricting religious freedom. But these claims make the presumption that religions should be exempt from scrutiny when it comes to compliance with basic human rights, or even social integration policies. The truth is that the French constitution protects the individual’s rights to religious freedom, but also the sanctity of secular, liberal values. In other words, the law seeks to protect an individual’s right to practice his religion, as long as those practices do not conflict with the liberal values of equality.

Firstly, what we all must realize is that there is a limit to religious tolerance. This is true for France, the USA, Singapore or any other country in the world that claims to support freedom of religion. One cannot hide under the shield of “religious freedom” to defend practices that cause harm to an individual or to society. In countries like Singapore and the UK, it is illegal to cause religious offence or incite violence, even if such actions are condoned or even encouraged by a particular religion. So it should come as no surprise that a believer’s right to wear the burka must be balanced with the offense that it causes to a society that believes in equality between the sexes. France has simply decided that French secular values trumps this right. (On a related note, why don’t I have the right to walk around naked in Singapore? Because the government has decided that my right to wear nothing is trumped by society being offended by public nakedness due to its conservative sensibilities. Fair enough.)

Secondly, wearing the burka is not a religious requirement, but a cultural one. There are millions of Muslim women all over the world that do not wear the burka. Even in France, there are only about 2,000 Muslim women that do wear it. A ban on the burka does not compromise one’s ability to practice Islam in a peaceful and moderate manner; but it only affects those who interpret Islam in a radical way that involves the indoctrination of girls in an environment that is anti-choice and devoid of personal freedom.

Cultural freedoms have limits too: the cultural practices of female genital mutilation, forced marriages and honor killings are outlawed in the civilized countries that recognize an individual’s basic rights to safety and to choice over the supposed value of preserving cultural norms. It is fallacious to suggest that all culture is sacred simply because many people have been practicing it for a long time. Such an argument can be used to defend all sorts of atrocities that are otherwise traditional and cultural: bride snatching, slavery, the list goes on.

Ultimately, whilst there must be tolerance and respect for different religious and cultural practices, a line must be drawn somewhere. France has decided to draw the line at inculcating young boys and girls with misogynistic notions of a woman’s worth being related to how she dresses. And frankly, I see little problem with them choosing to draw the line there – I too would like to live in a society where girls and women are not continuously faced with threats of shame and dishonor, and boys and men are not taught to use excuses like a woman’s dressing to defend rape and disrespect. Cultural and religious tolerance does not automatically mean tolerance of oppressive cultural and religious practices.

The burka ban part 1: Symbolism and meaning

The burka ban part 3: The problem with cultural relativism

The burka ban part 4: The perils of multiculturalism

The burka ban part 1: Symbolism and meaning April 12, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International, Politics, Religion, Society.
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2 comments

The burka is more than a piece of clothing. As much as libertarians prefer to over-simplify the issue into “the government trying to control the attire of its citizens”, it isn’t as simplistic as that. The burka is a symbol of female oppression. The mere fact that the women of some religious sects are compelled to don it is telling enough: Why do women have to wear it and not men too? Why are they compelled to, and not given a choice? What kind of selective “truths” are they brought up to believe – that all men are potential rapists or that an uncovered woman deserves to be raped? Who enforces this rule to wear a burka – mullahs, religious police, the men who own her? What happens if she chooses not to wear it – killed, stoned, loss of her father’s “honor”? What kind of cultures force their women to wear burkas – those that impose a multitude of other rules to control the behavior of women, or those that let women have individual freedoms? Like it or not, the burka is so inextricably linked to all these connotations of sexism, misogyny and oppression that one can’t put it on without suggesting that one is either a victim of, or a proponent of these illiberal values.

Why do symbols matter? Ideally they shouldn’t, but in reality they do. Symbolism is the reason why there is a difference between burning a Koran and burning a dictionary, between stepping onto a national flag and a piece of cloth. Symbolism is the reason why you will probably be arrested if you walk down the streets of Israel in your Hitler halloween costume complete with swastika and fake moustache. Symbolism is the reason why you will probably get lynched if you walked the streets of New York wearing a KKK hood. People attach meanings to books, flags and articles of clothing. The burka symbolizes female oppression because of the reasoning behind it, the lies used to compel women to “choose” it, the threats and punishments used to enforce it, and the meanings of female ownership and honor that come with it.

The burka ban is full of symbolism too: it symbolizes that the French have zero tolerance for female oppression. I highly doubt that the small fine is going to convince conservative radical believers to change their mind about the burka, and arguably, there are many other better ways to encourage women to escape from this form of oppression such as providing an avenue for asylum and education. Instead, the value of the burka ban is in its message: that oppression and its symbols have no place in secular France, and if that one were to be insistent on keeping women enrobed in a shroud of subjugation, one is welcome to do so elsewhere.

The burka ban part 2: Tolerance of religion or tolerance of oppression?

The burka ban part 3: The problem with cultural relativism

The burka ban part 4: The perils of multiculturalism

The burka ban is now enforced April 12, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International, Politics, Religion, Society.
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2 comments

France has become the first country in the world to ban face veils in public. I have written about this controversial issue before, and I have expressed how my inner libertarian finds it difficult to accept governmental control over a person’s clothing, while my inner feminist admires the French government’s commitment to preserving equal rights and liberal values. Now that the law is actually being enforced, I am brought to face this issue yet again, and I now realize that there is so much more to discuss – more than I would like to fit into a single post.

Over the next few days, in 4 separate, hopefully less wordy segments, I will talk about the various deeper issues of the French burka ban, and how this controversy goes far beyond feminism and libertarianism.

The burka ban part 1: Symbolism and meaning

The burka ban part 2: Tolerance of religion or tolerance of oppression?

The burka ban part 3: The problem with cultural relativism

The burka ban part 4: The perils of multiculturalism

My entire life philosophy in 9 minutes April 9, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Rants, Religion, Science.
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5 comments

If there is one thing that frustrates me more than conservative right wing religious extremists, it is the anti-science brigade that proudly denounces rational and scientific thought in favor of the mumbo jumbo world of psychics, homeopathy and astrological signs. The “faithful” folk that are blind to reason and rationalism, and prefer to let faith guide them into the bs-filled world of faith healings and alternative medicine devoid of any evidence or scientific validity. The mystical types who claim that my life is empty without the belief in a higher power or the afterlife, but who are themselves arrogant and ignorant for not recognizing that the sheer beauty of the natural world is more worthy of respect than any “god” described in obsolete texts, and how the mysteries of the scientific world instil awe, wonder and curiosity – not the need for magic and miracles.

I only wish I could refute them as eloquently and elegantly as Tim Minchin did in this awesome video.

Science adjusts its views based on what’s observed.
Faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.

Secular compassion in a time of tragedy March 24, 2011

Posted by laïcité in International, Religion, Unbelief.
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4 comments

I came across this quote by Sam Harris where he talked about the disasters happening in Japan, and I just wanted to share it:

Either God can do nothing to stop catastrophes like this, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t exist. God is either impotent, evil, or imaginary. Take your pick, and choose wisely.

The only sense to make of tragedies like this is that terrible things can happen to perfectly innocent people. This understanding inspires compassion.

Religious faith, on the other hand, erodes compassion. Thoughts like, “this might be all part of God’s plan,” or “there are no accidents in life,” or “everyone on some level gets what he or she deserves” – these ideas are not only stupid, they are extraordinarily callous. They are nothing more than a childish refusal to connect with the suffering of other human beings. It is time to grow up and let our hearts break at moments like this.

It’s only human to try and rationalize why things like these happen to good, innocent people, but we should resist the urge to do so. We may not go as far as to claim that the tsunami was a punishment from god, but even claiming that god had a purpose behind this disaster is bad enough. If I had lost my loved ones, my home, my livelihood, my possessions and my dignity in a catastrophe like this, the last thing I would want to hear is that this is all part of “god’s plan” to make me stronger. How comforting. Thousands of lives lost, all god’s disposable pawns, just to teach some people a lesson in inner strength.

Some people say that they can’t live with the idea that we are ultimately at the mercy of Nature; a force that lacks intent, purpose, or the ability to discriminate between the deserving and undeserving. But I say that it’s a better worldview to live with than one that involves giving a reason to the loss of thousands of lives and attributing it to a “benevolent” god – and in doing so, making light of the sheer extent of suffering inflicted onto other human beings.

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