Shy girl takes off her clothes for art’s sake

You wouldn’t expect a girl who describes herself as an introvert to take off her clothes in front of a camera, but that’s exactly what Beatrix Mae has been doing for the past few years.

Mae began her modeling career as a teen with a focus on commercial fashion work. She had some success with Alberta publications like Vue Weekly and See Magazine, but fashion is fickle and if you don’t have the right look, the look that is trending, your prospects are limited.

Before long, Mae decided that mainstream fashion work wasn’t for her. At the age of 19, she decided to try nude modelling for the first time.

“I just found there were a lot of things I didn’t like about fashion stuff. It wasn’t the aesthetic that I like,” Mae says. “I do really like artsy-fartsy stuff. I like the kind of quirky and weird things, and I found that that goes hand-and-hand with nude modelling.”

Mae was working with Kevin Stenhouse, a Calgary-based professional photographer, one night when she decided to take the plunge.

“He was doing the Little Lamp project at the time, and so I posed for that,” Mae says. “I absolutely loved it.”

The Little Lamp project is a photographic series of artistic nudes featuring different models posing under a lamp. Mae had seen photos from the series and wanted to be a part of it.

The project kickstarted Mae’s love affair with nude modeling, which she sees as a way to express her creativity and reveal her true self for the camera.

“When you’re wearing clothing, or too much makeup, or when you’re really overly stylized, you don’t even recognize yourself,” says Mae, adding with a laugh: “With the nudes it is? just really bare. No pun intended! But it’s just you. It’s really easy to see that beauty within yourself.”

Mae says nude modeling has boosted her confidence and allowed her to move past the negativity she associated with the mainstream fashion business. At the age of 17, she was immediately told she needed to lose weight if she wanted a career in modeling.

“I don’t think that’s a really healthy thing to be telling someone that young,” Mae says. “There’s always a mold they want you to fit. They don’t really let you be you.”

In contrast with fashion models, Mae says nude models come in every shape and size.

“I like the idea that nobody will tell you, ‘No, you’re a little bit too heavy for this project,’ or, ‘You’re not tall enough,’ or, ‘Your nose is a little odd,” Mae says.

Many of the projects Mae has participated involve working with a single photographer in a closed, secure environment but on occasion she has posed for nude photography workshops. Doing a workshop means posing for five or six photographers, some of them complete strangers. Mae says this can be a bit nerve-racking for someone who is a bit anti-social, but having other models onsite helps.

Nude modeling is an art, but it’s also a business so workshops can be a good source of revenue. Mae’s standard rate is $100 per hour and workshops can last 12 hours over two days.

No matter the situation, as a professional Mae is always thinking about how to bring her creativity into the mix. This involves knowing where the light is, trying to create interesting forms and finding a rhythm with the photographer.

Much of Mae’s work winds up on the Internet. As a result, she has had to deal with criticism coming from people who don’t know anything about her but just have to offer their opinion.

“Some think I’m being oppressed or coerced into posing nude,” Mae says. “And then there are people who just think nudity is sexual and associate it with pornography.”

Despite the reaction from a few online critics, Mae says the people in her life are far less judgmental.

“I’m really fortunate that my family is all super supportive of it,” Mae says, adding, “My mom is super proud of me and says she wishes she had the same confidence I do.”

Since her first nude shoot, Mae and Stenhouse have developed a strong working relationship and friendship over the years. The two have collaborated on dozens of projects.

“The most unique thing about Beatrix is her versatility and her ability to be a bit of a chameleon,” Stenhouse says.

Mae adds, “I think we just mesh really well together. I will come forward with an idea and he’ll add to the idea and visa versa. I mean not everyone has that working relationship where you can collaborate. We just have personalities that work well together.”

Although Mae still spends much of her time in front of the camera, she has recently begun to assist Stenhouse with lighting arrangements and client interaction.

“The most important thing to me is that she’s making the person comfortable. They know that there’s someone there that has actually gone through it before and has experienced it,” Stenhouse says.

Mae has also begun to act as a kind of liaison between models and photographers by introducing interested parties to each other. It’s part of her plan to go beyond modeling into other aspects of the business.

This article was originally published by Notice Magazine in 2015

 

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Defending Tolerance: Literature as Catalyst for Positive Change

Defending Tolerance: Literature as Catalyst for Positive Change

It’s the 21st century, yet prejudicial attitudes continue to exist within large segments of the population. Racist attitudes are not as uncommon as one might think. Here in the West, many consider our society to be multicultural, but that’s a pleasant fiction. The West might be multi-ethnic, but in reality, its culture is largely dominated by white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant values. Other cultures, including those of North America’s indigenous people, have been largely marginalized. It’s not surprising then to discover that misconceptions, prejudices, and racism are still a part of everyday life.

Although North America is home to a wide variety of ethnic groups, many are segregated for a variety of socioeconomic reasons. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Somalis, and other minority groups often form tight knit communities where they have little interaction with the larger culture around them. As a result, there are few quality opportunities for different ethnic groups to interact on anything more than a superficial level. When people don’t understand each other they turn to their assumptions, and those assumptions regularly lead to prejudice. However, when knowledge of cultural practices, beliefs and values are shared, celebrated, and publicized, the problem can be overcome.

Literature as a cultural bridge

Literature, and the knowledge it promulgates, is one of the most important tools in the struggle against racism. Through literature, people are exposed to new ideas, new ways of thinking, and most importantly, they are transported to a place where they may view the world through someone else’s eyes. Although many see short stories, novels and poetry as just forms of entertainment, they play an important role in enlightening the masses and combating racism. Literature is a catalyst for positive change; it influences our ideas about others and ourselves. Whether it is classic or modern, literature reveals the struggles of oppressed peoples, the value of family bonds, and imparts profound moral lessons. Two examples of literature as a cultural bridge are “Sonny’s Blues” and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian.

“Sonny’s Blues”

James Baldwin’s classic short story “Sonny’s Blues” is an insightful example of literature that reveals the hardships that were faced by many inner city black people. Though it was written in 1957, it is still relevant today. “Sonny’s Blues” demonstrates literature’s potential to inform and educate. The story centers on Sonny and his older brother as they struggle to make a living in Harlem after the end of World War II. As black men, they both face the tribulations of segregation, racism and low socioeconomic status. The community as a whole is struggling to make ends meet while at the same time dealing with crime, drug abuse and the general state of despondency. The situation for many blacks living in Harlem was dire. The opportunity to escape those conditions was almost nonexistent. The narrator describes the local school children as, “growing up in a rush [until] their heads bumped abruptly against the ceiling of their actual possibilities.” Baldwin paints a picture showing how little opportunity there was to break free of the oppressive conditions they faced. “Some escaped the trap, most didn’t.”[1]

As the story progresses, the reader comes face to face with the specter of racism when the narrator’s mother tearfully recounts the tale of her brother-in-law’s death. This happens when a car filled with drunken white men ran him down in the street. The narrator’s father was witness to the event. It affected him for the rest of his life and “[until] the day he died he weren’t sure but that every white man he saw was the man that killed his brother.”[2] Here we see the long lasting impacts of racism. Horrific events, which occur in mere moments, reverberate in the lives of those affected, spreading out like rings in a pond until they impact the lives of everyone around them.

Although the brothers have been through much hardship, they respond to it differently. The older brother passes judgment on Sonny for his use of drugs and rebellious actions. Initially, he cannot see why Sonny acts in self-destructive ways; however, in time they come together. Their family bonds, combined with the narrator’s newfound understanding of Sonny, help them mend their relationship.

“Sonny’s Blues” provides a view into a world that is obscured to many of us. By exploring the themes of racism, drug abuse, and family, Baldwin is informing his reader and dispelling many would-be prejudices. As author and professor James Tackach stated, “Baldwin played a spokesman’s role during the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, and much of his most poignant writing is devoted to the racial issues of his time.”[3] Baldwin’s stories were the vehicle used to drive social change. His literature was more than simple entertainment; it was a shout in the darkness – a shout for equality, understanding, acceptance and tolerance.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian

The modern novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, by Sherman Alexie is another example of how literature sheds light on the issue of racism, poverty and stereotypes. The novel , written in 2007, follows the experiences of Arnold Spirit (Junior) as a young man living on the Spokane Indian reservation. A somewhat geeky and awkward kid, Junior feels out of place, even when surrounded by his own people. When Junior decides that he wants to attend an all-white school in Reardan, he is seen as a traitor by his best friend Rowdy, as well as other Indians on the reservation.

Through a series of mishaps and tragedies, Alexie paints a vivid picture of life as seen through the eyes of one hopeful adolescent boy. Junior’s experiences at his new school help inform the reader what it is like to be on the receiving end of racist remarks. For example when Roger, one of the boys at school, asks Junior, “Did you know that Indians are living proof that niggers fuck buffalo?” the reader experiences the shock that comes from such an insensitive remark.[4] When Junior retaliates by punching Roger in the face, Roger calls Junior an animal.

Later in the novel, Junior faces racism again when Penelope’s father Earl tells him, “Kid, if you get my daughter pregnant, if you make some charcoal babies, I’m going to disown her.”[5] Blatant racist remarks and racial slurs are almost commonplace for Junior, but Alexie’s novel also demonstrates how poverty, and rampant alcohol abuse serve to define Junior’s existence. When Miss Warren, the school guidance counselor, informs Junior that his sister has died in a horrific accident, the reader is made witness to the cataclysmic consequences alcoholism has had on Junior and his family.[6] The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian breaks down stereotypical images of American Indians. Instead of proud warriors riding bareback through the open prairies, hunting buffalo, Alexie shows Indians in a contemporary fashion. By doing so, Alexie is using literature to change perceptions as well as to spotlight important social issues. His commentary on reservation life, although entertaining, also has another purpose: to inspire and initiate change.

Literature Prevails

Because literature can be such a powerful tool, it often threatens to upset the status quo. The evidence of this is clear. Even today – in a time when western societies claim to be open-minded and free – censorship of literature still occurs. Matthew Rothschild, a writer living in Arizona reported on one such incident:

The Tucson Unified School District banned the Mexican American Studies program. It specifically targeted seven books, but the entire curriculum, including some fifty titles, was off limits. School officials actually came into classrooms while students were present and took the books away.[7]

Often the people that aim to protect the status quo, actually give power to the very authors they seek to silence. Sherman Alexie was one of the authors whose book was banned. When asked his feelings on the banning, Alexie responded:

In a strange way, I’m pleased that the racist folks of Arizona have officially declared, in banning me… that their anti-immigration laws are also anti-Indian… You give those brown kids some books about brown folks and what happens? Those brown kids change the world. In the effort to vanish our books, Arizona has actually given them enormous power.[8]

Racism is still a serious problem, but Alexie and others have acknowledged the power of literature to “change the world.” Books like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, short stories like “Sonny’s Blues” and many other works of literature, are part of a great library of hope. Each letter, each word, each story builds upon, and strengthens, the wall of defense against bigotry, hatred and ignorance. As long as stories are being told, as long as people are reading them, literature will continue to be a catalyst for positive change.


 

 End Notes

[1] Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. 7th Ed. Richard Bausch, R.V. Cassill. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2006. 22. Print.

[2] Ibid. 30.

[3] James Tackach. “The Biblical Foundation Of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”.” Renascence 59.2 (2007): 109-118. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson). Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

[4] Sherman Alexie. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. New York: Hachette Book Group. 2009. 64. Print.

[5] Ibid. 109.

[6] Ibid. 201.

[7] “Censored Writers Respond.” Progressive 76.4 (2012): 17-19. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson). Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

[8] Ibid. 17-19.


Bibliography

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. New York: Hachette Book Group. 2009. Print.

Bausch, Richard and R.V. Cassill. Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. 7th Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2006. Print.

“Censored Writers Respond.” Progressive 76.4 (2012): 17-19. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson). Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

Tackach, James. “The Biblical Foundation Of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”.” Renascence 59.2 (2007): 109-118. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson). Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

Critical Review of Luc Besson’s 1994 film The Professional

As a journalist-in-training, I’ve wanted to write a critical film review for some time now. So when the chance to take a film course presented itself, I jumped at the opportunity. Fortuitously, my first major assignment was to select from a list of 17 films and write a review about one. The list included films made from 1960 up until 2012, but in all honesty, I didn’t recognize many titles on the list. In general, I’m not opposed to new experiences, but in selecting a film to write about I wanted to choose something I had at least a little familiarity with. I also intended to publish my review on my personal blog; I surmised by selecting something with popular appeal, it might be relatable to a wider audience – or at least the two or three people lonely enough to read it. It came down to Harron’s 2008 film American Psycho or Besson’s 1994 film The Professional. In the end, I chose the latter.

The Professional’s (1994) plot is simplistic: a professional assassin, Léon, is obliged to look after his 12-year-old neighbour, Mathilda, after her family is gunned down by a group of murderous, dirty cops. She offers to do Léon’s housework if he teaches her how to ‘clean’, a euphemism for murder. Mathilda is set on revenge and she needs Léon to teach her his deadly art. The two develop a complex relationship, which ultimately leads to Léon’s destruction. As the film comes to a close, Mathilda summarizes her situation quite succinctly saying: “My family got shot down by DEA officers because of a drug problem. I lived with the greatest guy on earth. He was a hitman, the best in town, but he died this morning and if you don’t help me, I’ll be dead by tonight.”

Although plot of The Professional (1994) is straightforward and easy to understand, the film also contains layers of complexity, especially pertaining to the relationship that develops between the Mathilda and her new guardian Léon. Certainly, the character Stansfield, played by Gary Oldman, is an important factor in advancing the plot, but this film is not about plot; it’s about characters. The complexity emerging from the interactions between Léon and Mathilda, as well as their development in the course of the film, is represented in the symbolic meanings of prominent objects. Objects take on meaning when the context of the characters’ motivations and relationship to each other is considered.

Case in point: the houseplant. Early in the film, Léon is shown paying great attention to his houseplant. He carefully cleans each leaf, misting them one-by-one with a spray bottle and then wiping them down with a soft cloth. He attentively positions the plant near the window in his apartment each day so it can absorb life-giving rays from the sun. At one point, Mathilda notices Léon’s horticultural diligence. She asks, “You love your plant, don’t you?” Léon replies, “It’s my best friend. Always happy. No questions. It’s like me, you see? No roots.” In this bit of dialogue, the symbolic meaning of the houseplant is partly uncovered. The houseplant is a kind of surrogate. It’s a friend, a child and a mirror of Léon, all at the same time. The houseplant represents Léon’s desire to have a companion and someone to take care of. But Mathilda says Léon should put the plant in a park so it can grow roots. She says he should be watering her if he wants her to grow. Here, Léon is being asked to give up his lone wolf status by bringing Mathilda more fully into his life.

This is the domestication of the predator. As the film progresses, we see the effects of Léon’s domestication. He goes out of his way to protect Mathilda, which leaves him vulnerable both emotionally and physically. When he rescues Mathilda at the DEA offices and when he asks his boss to give his money to her if he should die are good examples of this process. In some ways, he is compromised as a professional; however, Léon never fully turns his back on his way of life. Again we see the symbolic importance of the houseplant when, near the end of the film, surrounded by DEA and police who are hell-bent on killing him and Mathilda, he knocks a hole in the wall as an escape route. He then wraps his plant in a cloth and drops it down the space between the walls before putting Mathilda in. His continued dedication to the houseplant evinces strong remnants of his ruthless assassin identity. Therefore, Léon is not giving up the connection to his old life. He is still the wolf.

Beyond the symbolism of objects are the notable interactions between Mathilda and Léon. In my estimation, the contrast between the two characters and how they interact with each other is the most significant feature of the film and the reason why it is so compelling. In many ways, Léon is childlike. For example, he is seen drinking copious amounts of milk and eating cereal, typical of children. Furthermore, he is unable to read. He also seems to have a kind of ignorance of the world around him. A scene in the film that brings this to light is when Mathilda decides they should play charades. She dresses up like Madonna, Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin, but Léon has no idea whom these people are. All he knows is how to kill effectively; popular culture is alien to him.

In contrast to Léon’s childlike characteristics, Mathilda exhibits some very mature mannerisms. For example, she smokes cigarettes, wears slinky cloths and speaks provocatively. Indeed, Léon berates Mathilda for her language more than once in the film. When they are staying in the hotel, she tells the superintendent that she is Léon’s lover. Would it be cynical to wonder then, if the film’s director Luc Besson is flirting with pedophilic undercurrents? The argument can be made that whenever an unrelated man spends time with a very young girl, it must be very clearly explained that the relationship is on the up and up, or certain assumptions might be made.

Yet, Léon and Mathilda’s contrasting reactions to violence are telling. Those reactions reveal the core of each character, which is grounded in the normative view of a child and an assassin respectively. Because of this, the audience is able to see and feel the effects of violence through the eyes of these two protagonists. For example, in the opening sequence of the film, violence is seen as clinical and almost humourous. Bad guys are getting killed right and left, but the audience feels little or no sympathy. It is assumed the bumbling idiots deserve no respect. This treatment of violence reflects the unflinching, unfeeling ethos of the assassin. In marked contrast, Mathilda is devastated by the violence to her family. In particular, the audience is meant to feel sympathy for the young brother who was cute, innocent and totally defenseless. Mathilda’s reaction sets up the motive, as well as the audience’s endorsement, for the revenge violence that is to follow.

In her New York Times movie review, Janet Maslin (1994) makes note of the “extravagant violence” of the film (para. 9). According to Maslin (1994), the oversentimentality of the film overshadows the violence. She sees the cataclysmic explosion at the end – Léon’s suicidal coup de grâce – as “maudlin.” I agree with her assessment. The movie does wander into sappy territory at times. For example, when Léon saves Mathilda by opening up a hole in the wall, the two hold hands while Mathilda sobs and begs Léon not to make her go down the shaft alone. A saccharine sound score adds to the effect.

Maslin’s (1994) review suggests Léon “has a true sweetness” and that “he and Mathilda can redeem each other with the purity of their platonic love” (para. 9). Although there are no obvious indications that the relationship between the Mathilda and Léon was anything other than plutonic, I still can’t help but wonder if Besson wanted the audience to consider the appropriateness of the friendship.

The final criticisms in Maslin’s (1994) review are the problematic and “condescending American stereotypes,” such as the mob boss in the Italian restaurant, and the limited acting skills of Natalie Portman (para. 10). I can see her point about the stereotypes: do we really need another Italian-American mobster figure working out of his restaurant? However, if Besson were an American director, would this even be an issue? I think not. And let’s cut Portman a break! She did a fine acting job, emoting everything from playfulness to cunning to despair.

The Professional (1994) has become somewhat of a cult classic and for good reason. It’s a film that’s both entertaining and surprisingly nuanced. Yes, there is plenty of violence, but the multidimensional relationship between the solitary assassin and the resilient ingénue is the film’s redeeming quality. It’s a redemption that’s reflected in Leon’s personal development. When Léon agrees to open the door for Mathilda, thereby saving her from Stansfield’s goons, he is also opening his heart. By doing so, he’s letting in sentimentality. Consequently, his fate is sealed. He will die to protect Mathilda, but in doing so, he avenges the death of her family.

If you’ve not yet seen the film, I suggest you pour yourself a tall glass of milk and allow yourself to be sentimental. You’ll not be disappointed.

WORK CITED

Besson, C. (Producer), & Besson, L. (Director). (1994). Léon: The Professional (Motion picture). United States: Columbia Pictures.

Maslin, J. (1994, November 18) The Professional (1994) Film review; He may be a killer, but he’s such a sweetie. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9806E6DD1031F93BA25752C1A962958260

Jose Soriano sees Canada as an adventure and a challenge

Jose Soriano entered the pharmacy. It was a warm summer day in Montreal – a perfect day to get outdoors and enjoy the weather. His wife Leydy suggested they get some sunscreen first, so Jose volunteered to go get it. As he walked past the aisles, he spotted a clerk. Thinking he might get some advice, he decided to ask her a question about the sunscreen. He opted to speak French because he was in Montreal and because he thought it would be polite, but he very quickly realized his mistake. His French wasn’t good enough and he was just confusing the clerk. He promptly switched to English, hoping he would be understood, but that failed as well. To his amazement, the clerk continued speaking in French; then she simply turned and walked away!

As a new resident of Canada, Jose says his encounter in the pharmacy was just one of the many cultural challenges he’s faced since emigrating from Venezuela. Experiencing difficulty finding the right sunscreen might be a small hurdle, but it illustrates how even seemingly simple, everyday tasks can become points of miscommunication. Despite that, Jose says his decision to come to Canada is one of the best decisions he’s ever made.

Jose left Caracas, Venezuela when he was 31. At the time, he had limited proficiency in the English language, which he had picked up during his time at university. For this and other reasons, leaving Venezuela was not an easy decision. Not only was he leaving the familiarity of his country, he was leaving his friends and his loved ones.

“Leaving my family behind is still the most difficult thing. It will take years for me to overcome that,” Jose says. Thankfully, Jose’s family who live in Venezuela but are of Italian decent, have been very understanding and supportive. Venezuela has experienced many years of political, economic and social upheaval. Employment opportunities are scarce and crime is a real concern. In fact, when Jose arrived in Canada, he was surprised at how different it was from his home country.

“I was surprised by how respectful Canadians are. They seem to respect the law in every aspect.” It’s not surprising Jose feels this way. According to a 2013 Gallup report, Venezuela is one of the most “insecure” nations in the world due, in part, to a very high murder rate. One of the generally cited reasons for the problem is a dismal economic situation.

Two important criteria Jose considered in selected Canada as the place to start a new life were better career opportunities and the fact that Canada is highly rated on world indexes for standard of living.

Jose’s gamble is paying off. Since coming to Canada, first to Montreal and later to Calgary, he has worked hard to build his skills as a photographer. Being a photographer is a competitive prospect, but Jose feels he has some cultural advantages that will help him succeed.

“I grew up in an environment where you have to fight for what you want. I never got the easy toy, trip or car I wanted. I had to fight and work hard in every sense to get that,” Jose explains.

In his efforts to create a new life in Canada, Jose was not alone. He had the support of his wife Leydy who immigrated with him.

“When I met Jose, he’d been already working on the immigration project to Canada. I had no immigration plans at that moment, but I supported him by agreeing to come together and have a new start,” Leydy says.

Leydy says that one of her and Jose’s primary goals was to adapt to the culture of Canada as much as possible even though Canadians can sometimes make that difficult for them.

“I think Jose has struggled. It’s been difficult for him to get used to starting from the very beginning in another country where you have no friends, no family, no social connections,” Leydy says, adding, “It’s been difficult for him to get accustomed to [Canadian] people not trusting foreigners.”

According to Jose, making friends was easier in Venezuela, whereas in Canada it takes longer to build a level of trust. It’s is one of the things that he misses most about his home. However, he’s got a list of other things too: the food, the hot weather and, of course, his family. Jose laughs and jokes about Canada’s cold weather saying no country can be perfect.

It’s been three years since Jose arrived in Canada. His English has improved steadily and he is finding it easier to communicate. Basic communication is easier, but Jose doubts he will ever truly feel Canadian.

“Sometimes I think I will never feel like a Canadian because I have very strong Italian culture and, of course, Venezuelan. At this age it is kind of difficult to adopt the Canadian culture fully, but I’m pretty sure I will get used to it.”

Although finding his footing in a new country is a lifelong process, getting the right sunscreen is no longer a problem. Now, Jose has bigger fish to fry. He’s been working on his photography business and recently enrolled in a user experience design program at Bloc, an organization specializing in online training. If there’s one recurring theme in Jose’s life it is this: the drive to succeed, despite the obstacles.

“My family and business are my biggest focuses in my life. I think they are linked; one doesn’t work without the other. So, I will keep working hard to achieve my goals and when I get them I will start looking for another challenge to keep me alive.”

Personal Reflections: Buddhism

Personal liberation and self-discovery are powerful, driving forces in many people’s lives, including my own. As a boy, I was raised in a protestant family that believed strongly in the existence of God, and the truth of the Bible. My mother was particularly focused on the evils of the world, and spent much time warning my younger sister and I to beware the many tricks Satan might play on us. Devotion to God, following his commandments, and not being caught up in the worldliness of others were paramount to our immortal future. Getting into heaven was the ultimate goal. To be distracted from God were seen as detrimental – even fatal. Going to hell was a very real consequence of disobeying God’s laws.

In my late teens, I began questioning my beliefs and the stories that I had been told by my parents. Though I did not know it at the time, I had set out on a path of personal liberation and self-discovery. That path would ultimately lead me away from my faith as a Christian, but ironically it deepened my curiosity about the nature of faith and religion. Many years later that curiosity is still burning strong.

I was recently privileged with the opportunity to tour two Buddhist temples as part of an Eastern religions class I enrolled in. Although I had a long-standing interest in Buddhism – even reading a few books on the subject – my knowledge of the customs and traditions was limited.  In-class lectures provided some much needed insight on Buddhist practices, but visiting actual temples and hearing from faithful practitioners is what brought those insights to life.

It was a chilly, November morning when I visited the temples. Arriving early, I exlored the first temple of the Indo-Chinese Buddhist Association, in quiet solitude. My instructor had also arrived early; she offered me some jasmine tea, which I gladly accepted.

The Indo-Chinese Buddhist Association is a Mahayana temple. Mahayana Buddhists refer to their faith as a great vehicle. Until recently, Mahayana Buddhists thought of other branches of Buddhism as lesser vehicles.

The architecture of the temple, which was modeled upon Chinese style temples, was striking, as were the many religious objects and images. A large open area with red pillars dominated the main floor; from the ceiling hung a variety of oriental, rice paper lamps. The temple also housed a number of impressive effigies, including the Kuan Yin Bodhisattva – which is the primary deity of the temple – as well as Di Zang Bodhisattva, Amitabha Buddha and Wei Tuo Bodhisattva, to name a few. A table before the Earth God, Tu Di Gong, in the Ancestral Hall displayed offerings such as apples, oranges and rice. Beautiful bouquets of flowers were also on display.

Red donation boxes were also placed around the temple. I found a small donation box in a corner and made a donation. My classmates and I were encouraged to take a small statuette of a Buddha in return for our donation, so I selected a small bronze-coloured one.

Once the entire class was present, an elderly woman named Shun Yee, introduced herself and told us a few facts about the temple. She was a very likeable and friendly woman, quick to smile. She wore a jacket with a mandarin collar and a lovely jade bracelet. Standing before the group, she pointed out the goddess of mercy and compassion, longevity lanterns, rhythm fish, and Joss divination sticks, which are selected and then matched to a pink sheet. The sheets, written in Chinese, offer suggestions on what action a person should undertake.

After a time, some Buddhist practitioners arrived. One woman came in holding a bundle of incense sticks. She bowed, knelt, and left shortly thereafter.

Following our short tour, the class was invited to partake in a vegetarian meal in the downstairs kitchen area. We were treated to some delicious Vietnamese subs, soup and pink-coloured dumplings. A small shrine to the Kitchen God, Zao Jun, reminded us that food is a blessing, and it is something to be grateful for.

Following the meal, we proceeded to the next stop on our field trip: The True Buddha Pai Yuin temple. The Pai Yuin temple is a Vajrayana Buddhist temple. Vajrayana Buddhism is the newest form of Buddhism. Vajrayana Buddhists are unique in their use of tantras, which are instructions on how to achieve enlightenment.

In stark contrast with the Indo-Chinese temple, which was open, airy and somewhat minimalist, the Pai Yuin was enclosed and filled to the rafters with colourful Buddhas and guardians of all shapes and sizes. The sheer number of statues on display — ranging in size from 10ft tall to a few inches tall – captured my imagination and left me with a feeling of awe. It was a feast for the eyes and senses.

A table near the front of the temple was piled up with food offerings including chips, cookies, instant noodles, cereals and candy.

A number of nuns with shaved heads and traditional maroon robes were moving about and at one point they carried out a ritual while chanting mantras. After the small ceremony, my classmates and I were free to explore the steps of the temple and to take pictures.

The colours, smells and sounds of the Pai Yuin temple altered my mental state, inducing wonderment and curiosity. Also, I was struck by an immediate desire to return to the temple at a later date in the hopes of tapping into the peace and tranquility it alluded to.  I was not alone in this. Other students also expressed a desire to return; maybe they had glimpsed the same possibility of new knowledge. I cannot be sure.

Many questions swirled through my mind, but what I can be sure of is this: experiencing other cultures and religions first-hand makes opens windows to new exciting new perceptions. Seeing Buddhists pray and chant reminded me of my early childhood experiences in Christian churches. Although the rituals and theologies are different, there are some striking commonalities. For instance, the reverence one feels during a ceremony or prayer is the same, no matter what god is being honoured. Although I do not subscribe to superstition, I nonetheless understand the goals and objectives of religion. Finding inner peace, doing good deeds, seeking meaning in life, and respecting the powers of nature are all noble pursuits. However, despite the commonalities of religions, Buddhists also offer unique insights into the natural state of humanity. The Eightfold Path and the removal of kleshas – ignorance, greed and hatred – are wonderful examples of the wisdom of Buddhist thinking. Most importantly, Buddhism recognizes that the goal is not to gain something, but to remove something. It is possible to see through anatman, the illusion of self, and to be enlightened. In that sense Buddhism, like other religions, offers hope — hope for the possibility of peace, compassion, joy, equanimity and loving kindness. Importantly, these results are absolutely attainable without belief in the supernatural. It is results we should be focusing on, adopting the best ideas, and discarding the rest.

A Son’s Reflection

It’s a week before mother’s day. Once again I find myself in the greeting card aisle at the drug store gazing listlessly at the huge selection of mother’s day cards on offer by our friends at Hallmark. There are elegant cards with floral patterns; there are cards that play music when you open them; there are cards that virtually drip with sappy sentiments. The choices are numerous, and yet I can’t find a single card that says something real. I need a card that speaks truthfully. I need a card that says ‘I love you and appreciate you’ without making depicting my mother as a saint.

I don’t know what your mother was like, but my mother was a real person. She was fallible; she made mistakes, and plenty of them. Sending a card that says, “You’re the best mom ever and you were always there for me,” is bullshit. It’s not going to fly. I’m left wondering why I do this every year. After all, it’s not like I don’t talk to my mom all the time. She knows how I feel, right?

As I leaf through the cards one by one, I begin wondering who actually grew up with a mother who could honestly live up to all this drivel. Are there really people out there with Hallmark mothers? If so, mother’s day must be easy for them. They probably don’t even bother opening the cards to read the messages inside. They simply walk down the aisle, pick the first card that catches their eye without breaking stride, assured that no matter the praise being doled out their mother would be deserving of it. Oh how I envy those people. I imagine how they must look: handsome young men, strong and cultivated, and beautiful young women with manicured nails and perfect hair. Flawless in every way, due to their superior genes and ascribed status. Already on their way to becoming perfect progenitors themselves, their children ride in luxury in the back of shiny black Range Rovers.

Maybe I can find a humorous card. Those are usually pretty safe. Something about scratch and sniff underwear maybe. Is that too crass? Probably. Maybe a blank card instead. Yes, that’ll work. I’ll write my own message this year.

I decide a on card with a cute puppy on the outside and a blank interior. When I get home I find a pen and scribble out a message:

Dear Mom, Happy Mother’s Day! I hope you have a great one! Here’s a gift card for the bookstore. I know you can never have too many books, right? I look forward to seeing you this summer. Until then, lot’s of love, Jesse.

Happy with my safe little message, I place the card in an envelope, attach a stamp and then walk to the mailbox down at the end of the block. When I get there I double check the address and pop the envelope into the box. To be safe I open the slot again to ensure that my letter has dropped down into the bin. As I turn to walk back home I think about how silly it is that I do this every time I mail a letter. I ask myself,  “Where did I ever learn to do that?” Suddenly I remember why I send a card in the first place. Maybe next year my card will say something more meaningful.

People Suck. Right?

People are everywhere, but most of them are rubbish. Well-known comedian, Jerry Seinfeld once quipped, “People are the worst.” He was right. It is not a hard argument to make.  Everyone knows that people are inconsiderate, selfish and greedy. There are people that don’t signal in traffic, people that pick their noses, and people that sneeze without covering their mouth. There are those that pollute the environment, those that ignore the poor, and those that admire the cast of Jersey Shore. Bad people are all around. Some of them have bad hair. Some of them have smelly breath. Others wear too much cologne. These are the jerks, the idiots, and the morons.

Minor offenders cause aggravation, but major offenders cause real damage. Men that beat their wives, women that dump babies into trashcans and bullies that beat-up other kids represent the steaming heap of refuse that is mankind. These are the assholes, the bitches and the shitheads.

Beyond major offenders come truly evildoers like Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. These genocidal maniacs can barely be described as human beings, and yet they are. They are human, if barely. They represent the worst of all potentialities inherent in the species Homo sapiens.

The gamut of human nastiness ranges widely from vile and villainous to depraved, despicable and diabolical. There is no shortage of words to describe the worst that mankind has to offer.

So why put up with it? For better or worst, human beings are social animals that are dependant on one another. Holing up in a cave like a misanthropic caveman is not really a viable option. It might be tempting to run off and hide in the mountains, secluded and concealed from the dreary emanations of society; however the success of the species depends on co-operation and collaboration. Interdependency is the keystone characteristic that makes societal progress possible. More than that, people need each other. Beyond the basic necessities of food and shelter, people require companionship, love and affection. The desire to connect emotionally with others is a biological imperative, critical to the ongoing success of mankind. Simply put, people need people whether they like it or not.

Human beings exhibit a host of positive attributes designed to counterbalance negative ones. Forgiveness, compassion and generosity provide effective antidotes to many of life’s trivialities. When ‘golden rule’ human attributes are inadequate, as in the case of the worst evildoers, people invoke laws, punishment and justice.

Humans are social animals, but that does not mean that they are always sociable. Mankind has a split personality and is plagued by diametrically opposed forces vying for control. Like Robert Louis Stevenson’s character Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, humanity is caught up in a contest between rationality and animalistic tendencies.

Antisocial attitudes abound. An ongoing struggle between social and antisocial instincts is raging. The battle lines have been drawn between those that aim to improve society and those that wish to tear it down. To address this issue, politicians and bureaucrats have enacted laws that are designed to protect society, often to the point of absurdity. For every rule, there are people willing to break them. A teenager talking on his or her cell phone during a movie, a woman smoking in a no-smoking area, a man speeding through a playground zone: they are all thumbing their noses at those who comply. Discourteous individuals who blatantly disregard social niceties are a constant irritant to the protagonists of order. They are a thorn in the side, a burning ember of vexation to be stomped out.

Conflicts within social systems are inevitable, but do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks? Obviously so, otherwise there would be no cities, towns, or any large-scale groupings whatsoever, beyond the family unit. Even heinous perils, such as rape or murder, are worth risking to reap the benefits afforded by living in a collective. The benefits are hard to overlook. The great achievements of humanity would not have been possible if it were not for the setting aside of disputes and the reigning in of combative urges. Indeed, even mankind’s most nefarious pursuits, like war, have produced beneficial outcomes. Technologies like sonar, radar and other communications innovations were advanced through competition between the Allies and the Axis powers in WWII. Co-operation between individuals, families, tribes, communities, collectives and super-collectives has made all things possible.

The evidence is everywhere. Headline news is filled with stories about war, political backstabbing, crime, and other misfortunes. By flipping through the pages of any newspaper one will find plenty of evidence that people are a big bag of hurt. People are not to be trusted. Bogeymen lurk behind every corner. It is a world of trade-offs between good and bad. In spite of all that, our world can be a beautiful place. Can anyone say they would throw it all away?

Divine Command Theory vs. Ethical Relativism

The following is a paper written by Jesse Yardley. It is by no means a comprehensive comparison, and should only be considered a cursory view of the two philosophies. Any errors should be reported in the comment field, and I will attempt to revise the paper as necessary.

Introduction
Philosophers have been arguing for centuries about the nature of morality. In the field of ethics, philosophers have focused their attention on answering important questions such as: What is right and wrong? What is good and bad? By what process should we make moral decisions? The answers to these questions have been – and may always be – hotly debated. Philosophers have posited answers through a range of moral theories. Unfortunately, no theory is perfect. Not surprisingly then, no theory has gained universal acceptance. Does that mean that all moral theories are equal? No. Through critical analysis philosophers may evaluate the merits of a theory, thereby determining the relative strengths and weaknesses of each. In this essay, we will evaluate and compare two competing moral theories: Divine Command Theory and Ethical Relativism. Although each theory has its proponents and detractors, it is argued here that Ethical Relativism is the stronger theory. In order to support this argument, we must first examine the basic premises of each theory. Then we will address the key criticisms of each theory as well as the corresponding counter arguments. Next, we will examine the similarities and differences by comparing the two theories. Finally, we will demonstrate how Ethical Relativism is preferable to Divine Command Theory.

Divine Command Theory
Divine Command Theory (DCT) is the view that ethical principles are derived from the commands of God. DCT proposes that an action is obligatory if, and only if (and because) God commands it. An action is forbidden (wrong) if, and only if (and because) God prohibits it. Mortimer argued for the correctness of the DCT as follows:

  1. God is the creator of everything, including humans.
  2. Therefore, everything that we use is held in trust from God.
  3. Therefore, we are required to use them as God wills.
  4. Therefore, we are required to act as God commands.
  5. Therefore, the DCT is correct.

Mortimer’s argument can be condensed to:

  1. God exists.
  2. Therefore, DCT is correct.

Although the DCT is predicated on God’s existence, a theist (who is not convinced by Mortimer’s argument) could continue to believe in God while rejecting the validity of DCT. By appealing to the Independence Thesis, which holds that morality is independent of God’s existence, a theist and an atheist may agree that DCT is wrong, while disagreeing on the existence of God.  Plato examined the relationship between God and moral values in a thought experiment known as the Euthyphro Dilemma. He asked, “Do the gods love piety because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” For DCT to be correct, piety must be dependent on the God’s command. Therefore a proponent of DCT must answer: “It is pious because it is loved by the gods.” To answer otherwise would lead to values that are independent of God. But if DCT is true, God’s commands are arbitrary. Thus, if God commanded us to commit murder, than murder would be obligatory (and right) – because God commands it. A rebuttal to this problem has been posed: God’s goodness constrains His commands; God could not command anything immoral. But this rebuttal is unconvincing because it uses a redundant standard of goodness to constrain God’s actions. If it is meaningful to say that God is good, there must be a standard of goodness that is independent of God’s personification of goodness. Ultimately, DCT is unconvincing because it is arbitrary, redundant and lacks explanatory power.

Ethical Relativism
Ethical Relativism holds that there are no universal moral truths that apply to all people at all times. Instead, moral principles are thought to be local, conventional, subjective and self-justified. Based on Cultural Relativism, which highlights differences in societal norms, customs and practices, Ethical Relativism concludes that what is right or wrong is determined through cultural consensus. In other words, what is right or wrong is determined by what is considered normal within a specific society. It is only possible to judge the rightness or wrongness of an action by appeal to its cultural acceptance. The fact that moral beliefs and practices are often the product of cultural upbringing, rather than rational decision-making, provides Ethical Relativism with strong “external support” from the society or culture. In addition, Ethical Relativism also gains strong “internal support” from individuals. But Ethical Relativism has its disadvantages as well.

One major problem for Ethical Relativism is that it upholds the morality of such practices as slavery, sexism and racism so long as the cultures in which these acts occur accept them.  If a progressive, revolutionary agent claims that that slavery is wrong, and if he or she were in the moral minority, then the Ethical Relativist must admit that that person is wrong because they are going against the norms of their society. This system of morality makes moral reform impossible.

Another problem for the Ethical Relativist is the difficulty defining culture. Could a church be considered a subculture within a larger culture? A family? Indeed, an individual could constitute a culture of one. Following this logic, Ethical Relativism can be reduced to Subjectivism whereby individuals may claim singular moral authority.

Lastly, it is argued that the underlying principles governing all societies are not as disparate as they appear, even though practices and customs appear to be markedly different on the surface. When we consider these issues in combination, we see that Ethical Relativism undermines important universal values, fails to provide consistent results, and is indeterminate; it does not provide a reliable decision making procedure.

 

Comparing Divine Command Theory and Ethical Relativism
DCT and Ethical Relativism are similar in that they both appeal to authority to determine the rightness or wrongness of an action. For the Ethical Relativist, moral authority comes from cultural consensus; for the Divine Command Theorist, moral authority comes from God. DCT is also similar to Ethical Relativism by its culturally dependency: God’s commands differ in each society. Indeed, Christians, Jews and Muslims often disagree about what God commands, yet they all appeal to the same God for moral guidance. Each society interprets God’s commands to suit their society’s local needs.

DCT and Ethical Relativism have key differences. DCT is universal: what is good/bad, right/wrong is not relative, but absolute. By contrast Ethical Relativism is local and subjective.

Final Evaluation
By depending exclusively upon external moral authority to decide what is right/wrong, good/bad, we encounter serious difficulties in determinacy and consistency. In this regard, both DCT and Ethical Relativism are both problematic. However it can be argued that ceding moral authority to God (or his representatives on earth), presents a tremendous risk to society for a number of reasons. Firstly, humans who interpret God’s commands are notoriously fallible and prone to corruption. Historically, appealed to God’s authority was used to justify all manner of immorality. Indeed, holy wars, slavery, sexism, racism and infanticide are all condoned by the command of God via the Old Testament and Koran.

Further more, if we agree that both DCT and Ethical Relativism appeal to authority, we must conclude that authority derived from a tangible, earthly culture is preferable to authority derived from an intangible, heavenly God who may or may not even exist.

Finally, cultures that generally embrace relativistic ethics are typically more tolerant, more progressive and maintain higher standards of personal wellbeing than those that rely on divine commands.