Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Sunday, September 22, 2019

On the wrong side of a watershed

My granddaughter is black. She’s in Grade 10, in a comfortable, friendly little city with a population of around 40,000 -- almost entirely white.

            My granddaughter is discovering racism. She’s the only black person in her class. Some of her classmates -- one boy in particular -- call her “nigger.” They make fun of her. She feels excluded. 

            She says she desperately wants to move to Vancouver. Or Los Angeles. Or even Atlanta. Where she won’t stand out, be different, where there are more black people and she can blend in.

            She doesn’t realize that blending in -- especially in Los Angeles or Atlanta -- might be more hazardous than standing out in Canada. Blending in might mean getting pulled over, interrogated, searched and manhandled, for the crime of being black while driving. She might be denied educational opportunities, or shut out of job opportunities. At worst, she might be a target for a white-supremacist’s bullets. 


Inaction in schools

            The Tyee on-line newspaper recently ran a story about a black girl attending Lord Byng High School in Vancouver. Elise (not her real name) was the target of a “violent, obscene, and racist” video posted by a fellow student who claimed he wanted to kill black people.

            Elise and her mother took the harassment to the school authorities. According to the Tyee story, neither the school nor the school board did anything. They couldn’t discipline the student, they said, because he didn’t actually threaten her -- just black people in general. And they couldn’t comment further, they said, because of privacy concerns. 

            The Vancouver police did nothing more, according to the Tyee.

            My granddaughter had slightly better success. Her teacher overheard a “nigger” comment. She admonished the speaker before his whole class. 

            Now he only calls her “nigger” behind her back. 

            In Vancouver, Elise is now moving to a different school. Giving up her friends, her classmates, the special program she worked to get into. 

            Will there be no discrimination or prejudice at her new school? I doubt it. 


Crossing a watershed

            But the change will come, eventually. 

            Because it seems to me that North American society has crossed a watershed. Even though a lot of people can’t, or won’t, recognize it. 

            In traditional terms, you crossed a watershed when you discovered that the streams flowed in a different direction. The watershed might be a high ridge; it might be a swamp. No matter -- the change in direction was physically obvious.

            In social terms, the watershed is about attitudes. About what’s acceptable. Somewhere, in the last 50 years or so, what we commonly call “western democracy” crossed a watershed. It was no longer acceptable to think of people with black, or brown, or yellowish skins as inferior. 

            At the same time, it was no longer acceptable to think of women as inferior. Or gays. Or people in wheelchairs, people with Downs Syndrome, or people with chronic illness. 

            The streams of patriarchy flowed one direction; the streams of equality flow the other way.


Irreversible changes in direction

            Not everyone switched to the new way of thinking. Maybe only a small percentage did, at first. But the change has happened, and is happening, and is irreversible.

            Unfortunately, politicians are way behind the public on this watershed.  

            The Republican Party in the U.S. still doesn’t believe we have crossed it; Donald Trump doesn’t even know there’s a watershed. In Canada, the Conservative Party knows we’ve crossed that watershed, but doesn’t want to admit it; Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party wants the streams to flow back uphill. 

            As Thomas Kuhn noted in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,  a new idea, a new concept, never achieves instant credibility. Initially, only one man, Albert Einstein, believed in relativity; one man, Max Planck, believed in packets of energy. These too were watersheds, now almost universally accepted.

            But there will always be a diminishing group who fight the new normal -- Kuhn called it the “new paradigm” -- until they literally die out. 

            As in science, so also in society. 

            Unfortunately, in society, deniers of the watershed may require several generations to die off. Because each generation implants its beliefs in the next generation, who hold those beliefs just as tenaciously. 

            The boy who feels that it’s okay to denigrate my granddaughter has no personal reasons for disliking black people. He’s never owned slaves. Never lived in the southern states. Never belonged to the KKK. 

            Even so, he’s still living on the far side of the watershed. Someday, he may realize he’s getting left farther and farther behind. 


Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.

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Most of you agreed that water was essential to life, and that we should  be less cavalier about how we deal with it. There was less agreement about giving it special status. 


So Peter Scott wrote, “I can't agree with you when you suggest making water sacred but I do agree that although water is essential for life, too much water is a bad thing.  Too much of even a good thing is a bad thing.  What is sacred to me is the way nature (the planet) functions and that is by moderation and balance.  When any species on the planet reproduces to the degree that it threatens the balance of nature, perhaps because of the lack of natural predators (think rabbits for example) nature intervenes with some control mechanism such as disease.  As you pointed out recently, humans are reproducing beyond the point where the planet can tolerate our numbers and our rapacious behavior so nature is moving to bring us under control through events that we call natural disasters (too much rain, too much wind, too much heat, too little ice etc.).   It may take centuries -- or maybe a lot less -- but nature will bring the human race under control eventually because we are violating the sacred principles of moderation and balance by which nature functions.

            “Making things sacred is not an appropriate function of humans.  Ours is simply to recognize the sacredness of the principles that make all of life possible on the planet where we are privileged to dwell for a time.”


Steve Roney supported Peter Scott’s argument that it is not up to humans to make things sacred, referring to the golden calf created by the Hebrew refugees in the desert. Steve went on, “If being important to our physical life is the standard of holiness, it would be just as proper to say that we ought to worship money. Does that sound right? Is it because money is invented by man, and water comes from God (or nature)?

            “Try this one then. No form of life could survive without some form of waste elimination. These wastes then become the source of life to other beings, which feed other beings, throughout the chain; the ‘great circle of life.’ So surely by this standard we should worship -- er, excretions.

            “Does that sound right?”


Rob Brown, on the other hand, “was fascinated by the title ‘Water should be treated as sacred.’ I agree with you in that. Did not the ancient Greeks think that all matter is made up of earth, fire, air and water? Do not First nations honour four directions and their various elements? Yet most of us inhabit a world where nothing is sacred -- it's simply here for us to use. Such antithetical thinking. Is that part of what got us into the current mess?”


Bob Warrick noted that Australia’s current problem is not too much water, but too little: “Here in Queensland we are in drought conditions. Stanthorpe (population about 6000) will run out of water in December; the government is organising 30 to 40 trucks of water to head there every day. Our rainforests are burning and we didn’t believe they ever could. There are fires all over Queensland (and New South Wales) and all we need is water -- lots and lots of rain.”


Isabel Gibson connected my column to the current Canadian election: “As our politicians struggle to find an issue, maybe they'd like to tell us their vision of/for water.”


Tom Watson looked at some implications; “Somehow companies that bottle water have convinced the general public that the water coming out of our taps is unsafe while their bottled water is not only safe but superior. Here in Guelph we sell water -- give away would be a better term -- to Nestle Corporation so they can put it in bottles and sell it back at about 70 times what the water out of our taps costs.”


My column about fundamentalism, two weeks ago, continues to draw some letters. George Brigham wrote, “Responding to last Sunday’s piece about fundamentalism, I’m reminded of a story told by the principal of a college I attended long ago. Shortly after the publication of The Origin of Species two Victorian ladies were praying together:

    “Lord we pray that this evolution might not be true.”

    “Amen, and if it is true, help us cover it up.”






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                       You can now access current columns and seven years of archives at http://quixotic.ca

                       I write a second column each Wednesday, called Soft Edges, which deals somewhat more gently with issues of life and faith. To sign up for Soft Edges, write to me directly at the address above, or send a blank e-mail to softedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca

                       And for those of you who like poetry, I posted a new poem a few weeks ago on my webpage https://quixotic.ca/My-Poetry recently. If you’d like to receive notifications about new poems, write me at jimt@quixotic.ca, or subscribe yourself to the list by sending a blank email (no message) to poetry-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca (If it doesn’t work, please let me know.)






To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. (This is to circumvent filters that think some links are spam.)

                       Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on YouTube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8

                       Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. The website for this project has closed but you can continue to order the DVDs by writing info@woodlake,com

                       Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” is an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca. He set up my webpage, and he doesn’t charge enough.

                       I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also runs beautiful pictures.

                       Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)



                       The late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures now have an archive (don’t ask how this happened) on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. Feel free to browse all 550 columns.


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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Sharp Edges

Tags: watersheds, racism, schools



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