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Having just returned home from book club, where we discussed Michael Pollan’s latest unpacking of modern food culture and its broader effects on societal norms, a resounding undercurrent presented itself: namely, that Pollan has an uncanny knack for stating the obvious. To wit, (and please, excuse the reductionist analysis that is to follow), at one time we were hunters and gatherers who obtained nourishment wherever possible. We would eat on the go. You found a patch of berries? Fantastic, better scoop ‘em up before another animal comes along!

With the advent of cooking, the social norms surrounding the act of eating and nourishment were altered drastically. It was no longer one (wo)man for themself. Social norms developed with regards to how one should behave around the dinner table—it became a site in which to enact social norms—waiting for others to join the table, using the appropriate cutlery for appropriate dishes, and making pleasantries. Pollan’s analysis falls short in that it erases class distinction, and in so doing assumes that all families, no matter race or creed or socioeconomic status, were afforded the luxury of abiding by these new social norms. Regardless, by and large, it became widely accepted that there were a broad set of rules by which one should conduct themselves at the dinner table.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

For as much as I love food; eating it, analyzing it, growing it, cooking it, preserving it; I’m here to analyse social matters that extend beyond nourishment. Where I seek to draw the parallels, however, exists in the space where the ideas start to click in a deliberate and obvious way.

As a cyclist who uses two wheels to commute as long as the weather allows, I’m seeking ways to become better involved with cycling culture and its attendant political/infrastructural issues. Having recently come across an article on WaPo entitled Don’t make bicyclists more visible. Make drivers stop hitting them. , I couldn’t help but draw the parallel between safe cycling culture and the movement to end violence against women.

Let me explain.

Women and girls are raised to defend themselves against rape and violence and in so doing, the responsibility for these heinous acts are placed squarely on the shoulders of the potential victims of violence. Girls are taught that the way they dress may invite unwanted stares or worse; men are taught that they have sexual urges that they have no control over. Women are taught that being out late at night and drinking can invite unwanted behaviour; men are taught that women are theirs to conquer.

As women, as soon as we step out the door, we are taught to be on alert.

I would argue that the same is true of cyclists.

Cyclists are taught to always look out for the motorists’ next move, to always be one step ahead. As the article pontificates, a cyclist’s decision whether or not to wear a helmet can often weigh heavily in the public’s perception of the aftermath on any ‘accident’ involving a cyclist. Women are taught the same when it comes to the ‘matter’ of being a woman in public. As cyclists we accept that the current infrastructure is one that prioritizes the desires motorists while ignoring the many positive ramifications afforded by cyclists. Men aren’t taught to take responsibility for their actions in much the same way that motorists aren’t taught to share the road with others. In sum, popular cultural narratives continue to emphasize that the victim of a cycling accident wasn’t wearing a helmet, while the driver’s dangerous habits go unexamined. The same is unequivocally true of women (and men) who experience violence and for whom the perpetrators of said violence goes unnoticed.

This is not something we passively accept, but something we work against as we advocate for more bike lanes and to educate about cyclists’ rights. The same goes for women’s rights. The patriarchy ain’t nothing new here.  It doesn’t mean we’ll stop fighting against it. It doesn’t mean we’ll accept that status quo that continues to see no problem with educating women on how to avoid rape whilst failing to address the root of the problem: the men who perpetrate violence against women.

As a cyclist, I’m taught to always be on the lookout for impending danger. As a woman, to do this is second nature.

For me, the parallels between establishing a safe cycling infrastructure and woman-friendly society come down to core issues: we need to critically examine the causes of the inequality and its preponderance to blame the victim. At the end of the day, we have nothing to lose from addressing these issues, but everything to gain, not least of which is a more just and equitable society with safer streets for all.

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To my memory, Canadian society has never been more rife for sociological musing than it is right now.  It makes me wish that I were still in school, or at least more entrenched in progressive circles that like to debate and discuss as though they were in an honours sociology seminar class. Since I’m not, putting pen to paper will have to suffice.

From the political economy and the dire state of the job market, to an unprecedented discussion on sexual assault that’s spanning the nation, to the collective conscious’ shock and dismay at the murders of two members of the Canadian armed forces in a short time (labelled terrorist attacks by some, with that label rebutted by others), to the way technology has infiltrated and completely transformed the way we interact at some very basic levels, this much is certain: these are tumultuous times.

This is my attempt to unpack at least a miniscule aspect of how technology is informing our daily lives in a new, exciting, and terrifying way.

I recently read an op-ed that has, for lack of a better descriptor, really irked me. So much so, that I’m blogging about it. It has me reconsidering, or at least revisiting, my thoughts on some pretty big concepts, like technology and the increasingly predominant role it plays in our lives. Notions of progress.  How we create and nurture interpersonal relationships in an increasingly speed-driven world. Paul Virilio once said “without the freedom to criticize technology, there is no ‘technical progress’, only a conditioning…” So, let us begin.

Transit is a crucial part of all our lives, regardless of how much or little thought we give it. I’m lucky to be an abled bodied person who has the confidence to use a bicycle in a non-bike friendly city as my primary mode of transportation—when weather permits, that is. When the cold weather hits, I resume being a reluctant TTC user. I also take cabs from time to time, and have started using UberX since it was introduced to Toronto in September. UberX  quickly becomes the black sheep of the taxi world seemingly wherever it sets up shop—I was first introduced to it while in Seattle earlier this year, and was nothing less than impressed with the service, but the city was working tirelessly to have it banned.

UberX manages to subvert the traditionally heavily regulated taxi environment by giving private drivers the means to become freelance cab drivers, accepting or rejecting proposed fares with the touch of the button on their smart phones. If you live under a rock, or maybe just a rural area (sorry, my Toronto is showing…), let me explain:  download the app, swipe the button, and within a few minutes, a cab shows up at your door, or wherever the GPS lets the driver know you’re located. No money is exchanged; everything is charged to your credit card via the app. UberX is cheaper than a conventional taxi cab. It’s also far more convenient. In my opinion, these are the two primary drivers for the app’s popularity.

Heather Mallick wrote a scathing piece in The Star in what basically amounts to a cost benefit analysis: she posits that a cheaper cab ride can actually be quite costly, given the perceived safety risks associated with, what she amounts to, taking a ride with a stranger.  Ultimately, she argues, the risk is highest for women, since, “he knows where you live. You have no recourse.”  (Nevermind that  regulated taxi driver would also know where you live; often the point of taking a cab is to be dropped off at one’s place of residence. But I digress.)

Frankly, I find her critique reductive, and it reeks of fear-mongering. This is something all women are well-versed in. We are constantly told how to dress to not be raped, to hold our keys between our fingers in order to defend ourselves against would-be attackers.  Rather than telling men not to rape or behave in a way that is intimidating to women, we tell women to adjust their behaviour accordingly.

To Heather, UberX represents an undesirable use of new technology where women seemingly offer themselves as prey. Where women aren’t abiding by the prescribed rules for taking responsibility for their safety whilst being female in public. As though the regulated taxi world is a safe haven for women. Not so, Heather. She seems to think that a lesser regulated cab service will give drivers a carte blanche to assault passengers at will, and without recourse.

UberX is here to stay. Even our new Mayor acknowledges this. As a woman, I am a proponent of the service: it empowers me to get to where I am going, and for cheap.  Anecdotally, regulated cab drivers have been some of the worst drivers I’ve encountered. And, as Montreal proves, screening drivers does not ensure safety for passengers.

Technology is changing transportation in fundamental ways, and I think the conversation about  Uber is one worth having.  Is it perfect? No. Are there kinks to be worked out? Absolutely. Is the corporate culture at Uber uber sexist? Yeah.  Will I stop using it? Not for now.

So, what do you think? Do you use UberX? Do you agree with Heather?

What are your thoughts on UberX? On gendered aspects of transit?

*Full disclosure: I am currently attending the Academy of Osseointegration’s Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington. The focus of this conference is implant dentistry. This will be cross-posted my company’s website next week. 

With a combined background in gender studies and sociology, I can’t help but perform gender analysis of any given situation, especially when a gender divide is glaringly obvious. Like at AO. On International Women’s Day.

A great gender divide exists in dentistry.  According to the ADA, women account for a paltry 17% of active practitioners in the US as of 2003. The numbers are a bit better when you look at recent grads. Here, women make up nearly 35% of active practitioners. Women are also underrepresented in specialized dentistry.

I need only to flip through the AO program guide to see that this is true. There is less than a handful of female presenters at this meeting, out of many dozens over the course of three days.  Naturally I made it a priority to attend a lecture given by one of these few women.

 On Friday I arrived at the convention centre bright and early, grabbed some Cinnamon Toast Crunch (seriously—this is what they’re serving dentists for breakfast?!) and settled in for Dr. Ingeborg De Kok’s presentation, Abutment Design: Problems and Solutions. Here was a woman who had overcome a number of barriers in order to succeed in implant dentistry. She must be progressive, I thought. She must be smashing conventional gender roles, I presumed. Boy was I ever wrong. You can imagine my dismay when she made a joke at the expense of all women when describing how to choose an appropriate abutment in the face of a dearth of information about the products.

“Well, I’m a woman, right? So I choose it the same way women choose cars—I picked the prettier one.”

Needless to say, the joke fell flat. Or maybe it was not meant as a joke at all, but as a viable explanation for choosing abutments. Regardless, here was a woman who, despite her obvious successes in a traditionally male-dominated field, had relied on conventional gender roles to explain how she makes important decisions about her work.

Naturally, I had to ask myself why she would do this. Is this a survival tactic for making it in dentistry? Females are more likely than males to engage in self-deprecation. Perhaps this is a way for her to hold on to her femininity while operating in a field that is largely dominated by men. By adopting this narrative, she is telling the world that she still espouses traditional gender roles despite her role in a field where few women succeed.

So here I am, on International Women’s Day, analyzing the role of women in dentistry. While it’s clear that women have made great strides in terms of representation in this field, there is still room for improvement. It is my hope that some day in the not-too-distant future, women will not have to rely on self-deprecating narratives in the professional world, or really, any world at all. 

Today I was reminded of how my problems pale in comparison to others’. While these problems are not insignificant by any means (as any 20-something struggling with the insouciance that accompanies watching each day pass as they meander further down a career path that was never ‘part of the plan’ can relate), today I was confronted with the manifestation of racism and imperialism writ large, to the extent that I was wracked with tremors and had to use all of my might to maintain composure in an office setting which dictates that displays of emotion should be kept to a minimum. Who are these others? I do not intend to Other them, but at the same time I grapple with finding the language to use to describe a population I have only studied from within the confines of an ivory tower. Yet I find the discomfort of worrying about using the correct terminology, about framing things the right way, insignificant in comparison to the need to raise awareness about the issue.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m talking about Aboriginals. I’m talking about the violence against Aboriginals which has become so entrenched in Canadian society that most of us don’t even flinch when we read the latest account of an Aboriginal woman murdered and left by the side of the highway like road kill. What kind of society do we live in where this is taken as a fact of life? Sure, undoubtedly most would find the story tragic. Especially given that Loretta Saunders, an Inuk woman from Newfoundland and Labrador, was well-educated and fair-haired. She did not fit the typical profile that springs to the collective conscience when one thinks of a murdered Aboriginal woman—under-educated, impoverished, and likely involved in the sex trade. And how messed up is it that such a trope exists?

Loretta was working on a thesis at St. Mary’s University on the topic of violence against Aboriginal women. Today her thesis adviser released a statement commemorating her, remembering her, but also explaining some of the personal challenges he has encountered since her disappearance, and, ultimately, since her body has been found. It seems that everyone is out to play detective, to ruminate on the role her roommates might have played in her murder. But the point is that this was not an isolated event. Violence against Aboriginal women is endemic in Canadian society and it has to stop. Our country has a goddamn Highway of Tears where innumerable Aboriginal women have gone missing. Why is it innumerable? This is no doubt due, at least in part, to police reluctance (or downright refusal) to investigate cases of missing Aboriginal women.

Today, as I read of the hurt and suffering that is being felt across this country of ours, I was tuned in to a radio station. When  this station played  a Tribe Called Red’s ‘Woodcarver’, I was taken  by the way that violence against Aboriginals surrounds us. It’s not circumstantial; this is the norm. In this case, it inspired art. Woodcarver describes the murder of John T. Williams, a peaceful, hearing-impaired woodcarver who was shot from behind by a police officer in Seattle in 2010, due to inability to follow police orders to drop the knife he was wielding, presumably due to his hearing impairment. Listen to a Tribe Called Red. Read Darryl Leroux’s words. Learn about the peaceful woodcarver John T. Williams. Don’t let Loretta Saunders die in vain.

precautionary consumption.

currently there are two ideologically-driven paradigms that dictate how chemicals are regulated at an institutional level.

the first is premised on the traditional biomedical model, relying on toxicological testing to determine an acceptable exposure level of a chemical. the burden of proof (that is, who should be responsible for proving a chemical’s safety- or lack thereof) rests with the institutional regulators- ie., the government. under such a model, the absence of evidence is accepted as evidence of absence (of the potential danger of a chemical). this paradigm informs american chemical regulation, and, to an extent, canadian regulation as well.

secondly, under the precautionary principle, the very shortcomings of conventional scientific endeavour are confronted. it’s acknowledged that conventional toxicological testing is fraught with pitfalls, and that we shouldn’t put too much weight into this type of testing. indeed, the absence of evidence is not taken as evidence of absence (of chemical risk). the EU has wholeheartedly adopted the precautionary principle, with sweden taking it a step further to remove all suspected carcinogenic compounds from the market by 2015. (as if i needed another reason to want to move there!)

my study found that women were, as with the precautionary principle, generally skeptical of the current accepted standards of toxicological testing. it was understood that the current tools that we have are not equipped to test chemicals for long-term, cumulative effects.

as a result, the women took it upon themselves to mitigate chemical risk, where they could, by adopting a chemical-free lifestyle.  they wither purchased genuine eco-friendly products (which had to meet a stringent list of requirements, and had to be free of synthetic fragrances), or they made their own- generally out of vinegar and baking soda. the latter were heralded for their availability and low price-point. the former were noted to have a higher price-point than their conventional cleaning counterparts.

that the women took it upon themselves as individuals to manage chemical risk is evidence of the individualization of risk and ne0-liberalism. under such a paradigm, institutional actors take a hands-off approach and responsibility is downloaded to the individual. to wit, women’s strategizing to avoid conventional cleaning products.

this chemical-free lifestyle was congruent with the precautionary principle, where they were acting in the evidence of absence. their critiques of toxicological testing echoed those of proponent’s of the precautionary principle. indeed, these women were critiquing the status quo and modifying their consumptive behaviours accordingly.

risky business.

something i haven’t blogged about much is the concept of risk (or at least i don’t think i have- it’s been a while since i read this thing!)

ulrich beck’s theory of risk society is actually a theory of modernity and how we organize our lives in a post-industrial society characterized by risk. we anticipate risks everyday, if you really think about it. in some ways it’s more obvious, like when we buy car insurance. (as an aside- modern inventions are not inventions, fait accompli. inventions also come with a whole host of corollary and unintended inventions… i believe it was paul virilio, in theorizing speed, that said something along the lines of, until the invention of the car, car crashes didn’t exist. that’s something that’s always made me go, whoa.)

other risk-management strategies aren’t so obvious, or at least we don’t always think of them as such. eating an organic diet often means that one is ingesting less harmful pesticide residues than when conventionally-grown produce is consumed (imagine there was a time when conventionally-grown meant grown organically? you know, because these pesticides just didn’t exist? sigh… well, it looks like ‘nature is striking back‘.)

similarly, buying non-toxic environmentally friendly personal care products and cleaning products is often viewed as a way to shield or protect oneself from the harms of chemicals. but just how effective is this strategy? does it matter? can precautionary consumption result in broader social change?

the harper government just renewed funding to its problematic chemical management plan (CMP). the plan basically amounts to a game of smoke and mirrors, wherein the government appears pro-active about meaningful chemical regulation, but in fact the program incentivizes producers of chemicals to never test their chemicals. while a group of chemicals have been slated for toxicological testing, even where the chemical proves to be harmful, restriction of its use is lacking. apparently, we are supposed to herald harper for banning BPA from baby bottles, when really, it would probably be best if everyone- children and adults alike- weren’t exposed to the endocrine disruptor. so, the CMP is back, and harper is patting himself on the shoulder for the CMP.

the problematic triclosan is slated for review. this is a ubiquitous anti-bacterial agent that is a suspected carcinogen. does anyone out there use bath and body works anti-bacterial handsoaps? it seems like those soaps are everywhere. filled with suspected carcinogens. it will be interesting to see how triclosan is eventually regulated, if at all. my guess is the CMP will have to be very careful not to step on industries’ toes too much. stay tuned…

 

relational activism.

in part, my master’s thesis has sought to gauge women’s activism in the environmental health movement. i’m coming to realise that this designation is more academic jargon than anything. the environmental health movement seeks to address environmental causes of illness. ie, what is it about our environment that makes us sick? what institutional actors are implicated in these causes? what are the broader social forces that allow for the proliferation of the products/pollution that make us sick? why aren’t epidemiologists more concerned with this?

so. i asked the women i interviewed: are you aware of a broader environmental health movement? mostly, the answer was no. but- they went on to describe their understanding of the environmental movement.

so, would you consider yourself to be an activist?

yes, but no; mainly, i lead by example. 

how do you mean?

well i try to make my sustainable and eco-friendly lifestyle as accessible as possible- i don’t try to step on anyone’s toes, or tell them how they should lead their lives, but rather, i try to make it seem like the easy, and logical choice.

in effect, these women were a part of the environmental health movement- they were making lifestyle choices that they believed were beneficial to their health. they didn’t call it the ‘environmental health movement’, but perhaps that terminology exists mainly so that academics can talk about what’s going on. for those involved, they don’t need the name, they’re just doing their thing.

additionally, for the most part, they were hesitant to call themselves activists (for a number of reasons, but i’ll focus on one.)
‘leading by example’ doesn’t fit most people’s definitions of activism. but maybe it should. according to the literature, while women exhibit more pro-environmental behaviours than men, this isn’t reflected in their activism. but perhaps our definition of activism is too narrow: in the literature, it refers to a range of activities that occur in the public sphere- signing petitions, attending rallies, lobbying the government.

as a result, women’s activism that occurs in the private sphere- by sharing information and skills with friends and neighbours, and by leading by example- isn’t given its due. this kind of relational activism- activism premised on building relationships- is swept under the rug and, in academic circles at least, hierarchized as a lesser form of activism than the traditional activism described above, thus leading to conclusions that women are ‘less’ active in environmental movements. and so i leave you with this question: since women’s relational activism helps foster relationships with like-minded people, and focuses on sharing information, skills and strategies and in the end helps others in their communities strive towards a more sustainable/healthy/eco-friendly lifestyle, how could this not be constitutive of  a social movement?