Sunday, 23 December 2012

Disagreeing, in Private

“…It seems that some who say they are anti-consumerist are simply CHEAP! They don’t want to spend money on others. Then they turn around and tell you that they are anti-materialistic, and make it sound like they are better people than you…”, a friend wrote in an email after reading my last blog entry. The day prior, another friend wrote me about the same entry, commenting that gifting isn’t necessarily a materialistic thing. She enjoys “seeing the anticipation and excitement” in her kids’ faces when they rip apart the wrapping paper to find their favourite toys.

These are exactly the types of diverse responses that I would like to elicit and get the dialogue going. Interestingly, some friends who seemed to agree with me “liked” my post or put their comments on my Facebook page, whereas those who disagreed or questioned my position did it in a more private manner.

As I pondered over this, another friend encouraged me to blog about this. As a bioethicist, I’m often called upon to address the most distressing ethical dilemmas at the bedside. Many ethics consults are prompted by disagreements about what to do in a particular situation, such as whether we should remove life support for a patient in minimally conscious state, or use anti-psychotic drugs on patients and long-term care residents who allegedly display aggressive behaviour.

My friends weren’t looking for anonymity – they emailed me from their personal accounts. So I am curious: why may people be reluctant to air even thoughtful disagreements in public, especially when anonymous posting is an option? Is it because we worry that public disagreements are often seen as conflicts?

If people agreed all the time, I would be out of a job. And my goal for starting a blog about ethical issues in our daily lives certainly isn't to get agreements – my purpose is to engage in reflection and dialogues with others. So as many of us anticipate the excited faces of our loved ones opening presents we chose for them, do you think there is a difference between anti-consumerism and being cheap? And would you be willing to agree or disagree with me, in public? :)

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Agree to Disagree


Sunday, 16 December 2012

Shop Till the End of Time

“Are you ready for the holidays?”, multiple people asked me in the last few days.

I tried, if getting ready means buying gifts and hoping that the world wouldn’t end before we show these special people how much we spent on them. The day after Black Friday, I was in a mall – a revelation that may shock those close to me.  It was, to use a friend’s favourite term, a ‘gong show’ there.

While consumerism was certainly in full display, was love in the (stale) air?  

A recent movie about how the characters were (not) preparing for the end of the world raised a question that people often ponder about but rarely act on: how would I live my remaining days if I knew the end was coming?  How would we show those we care about that we love them?  While the death rate for us mortal beings has always been 100% (!), when or how we will die is never quite certain, raising ethical and political questions about how we should prevent accidents, test genetic anomalies for life-restricting conditions, treat patients with various illnesses, and more.  I suppose having the whole world ending is different from you being the only one dying – with the former, you don’t need to worry about how your death may affect your loved ones.  But either way, is buying more presents the best way to show love while we are still around?  

Don't get me wrong.  I appreciate all the thoughts and efforts behind every gift people gave me.  I've also spent hours shopping for or making gifts for those I love.  But the gift of time is perhaps the scarcest and most treasured.  Its rarity is not surprising, given how many of us are addicted to the busy trap – me included.  But increasing consumption and the use of social media have not brought people closer to each other than simpler times.  If anything, the unrealistic expectations on what consumer goods can do in terms of relationships and happiness may have made people more stressed out and more isolated than ever.  

Oh, how far I have strayed since getting my undergraduate degree in marketing :).

Last week, on a day when I had to run back and forth between sites, I confirmed with our intra-hospital shuttle driver my return time.  When I stepped back into the van a couple hours later, he had a dark chocolate bar waiting for me.  He knew I often had to skip lunch to attend various meetings and consultations, and he picked it up for me while on his break.  That was only a few days after he gave me another snack so I had something to eat while rushing between meetings across facilities.  He kept emphasizing the low monetary value of the chocolate bar, but it was perhaps the most valuable gift I received on a hectic day when I lacked the same care and generosity that he exhibited.  

On the weekend, to celebrate our lives together, a friend gathered a few of us for a delicious home-cooked dinner.  We shared stories about our hopes and dreams, concerns about the state of affairs and atrocities in the world, the oddities of human relationships, and endless laughter.  No one was worried about the Mayan calendar myths taking us away from each other any time soon, but we were all living in the moment and treasuring each other’s company.  

And with their gifts of time and love, I am now ready for the holidays.

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Tuesday, 11 December 2012

To Name Or Not to Name: That Is the Question (About Free Speech?)

A seasoned blogger friend asked me a very good question: do I really want my name attached to my page, given that it can have professional repercussions?  Certainly, as an academic, I am used to attaching my name to publications and grant applications. But I often advise students to be careful about their online persona.  I rarely post comments even on topics of personal and professional interests partly because of that.  I occasionally agree to media requests for interviews only because I think we (academics) have a civic responsibility to engage in and promote public dialogues – although I also worry that our clips when taken out of context can make us look like idiots rather than foster real discussions.  

As a relatively private person, it surprises even me that I’m blogging.  Certainly, the views expressed here or elsewhere are mine, not those of my employers.  And I’m not blogging to a professional or an academic audience.  And I doubt that many people will be reading this (but I appreciate all of you who do read this!).  But still, wouldn’t I be freer to write whatever I want if I remain anonymous?

J. S. Mill famously argued that freedom of expression allows competing opinions to be aired.  In the marketplace of ideas, communication that can be perceived as offensive may foster more dialogues that can help us to search for and discover the truth.  Even self-censorship may stifle productive discussions.

I can imagine that there are people who may only feel free to offer their thoughts and engage in dialogues if they could remain anonymous, since some of their opinions can be perceived to be offensive.  And let’s face it – some of us can get offended by many things.  But more importantly, allowing anonymous posting may be necessary for those in marginalized communities to challenge the status quo.  Their viewpoints are often silenced by those in the more powerful groups, and their act of rebellion or whistleblowing can cost them dearly. 

Those exceptions notwithstanding, I would think that we should own up to our ideas and allow them to be challenged.  While being anonymous may allow me to say whatever I want, the purpose of writing this blog isn’t about that.  Saying whatever one wants can have great shock value, but it isn’t always a good way to promote open dialogues.  

Some of you, particularly those living in the US, may remember the free speech controversy in October.  Adrian Chen from Gawker unmasked a popular anonymous blogger who, hiding behind anonymity, created sub-forums on whatever he wanted on the online community Reddit. I have no interest in seeing images of scantily-clad underage girls and other nauseating materials posted by the self-described “creepy uncle of Reddit.” But I doubt that Michael Brutsch was trying to promote the search for any kind of truths, even if the context around the exposé has subsequently fostered discussions of whether unmasking his identity would truly compromise the free marketplace of ideas.

A friend who wanted to post her thoughts on my previous entry alerted me that my page required some sort of profile to post comments.  I subsequently found out that I could allow readers to post anonymously, and I changed the settings accordingly.  With that in mind, would that make you more likely to share your thoughts?  I’m most curious to see how many of you would leave me a comment – with your identity revealed, or masked. :)

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Saturday, 8 December 2012

Why Am I Here?

A friend and I were discussing whether women indeed talk more than men a couple days ago.  A pop-psychology book that came out a few years ago seemed to suggest that, but another study refuted the findings, claiming that the verbal output between the sexes is virtually equal, even if the content of those conversations may be different.

I am often uncomfortable with broad gender stereotypes and assumptions, so if I indeed get long-winded on this blog, please don’t think I represent all women.  Or even all women who live in Canada. Or Vancouver.  Or as my mother would say, please don’t think my daughter represents all women of Chinese descent. (And please don’t think she represents me either.)

As you can see, I can go on for longer even just with that.  Imagine how I might be with things that truly irk me. :-)

I was very irritated by the coverage of a radio prank earlier this week, and even more saddened when that turned deadly. (I genuinely hope that you don’t know what I’m talking about.)  I have no idea if there was indeed a causal link between the events.  On the one hand, I hope we never find out – that is, the media will stop reporting this and allow all involved their due privacy and respect.  On the other hand, if the airing of the prank indeed contributed to the death, I would like the media to reflect on their contribution to our obsession with other people’s lives when they can instead help us to live our own in more informed ways.

So there I was, having just read the headline about the deadly prank, ranting to a colleague about responsible reporting and what is really newsworthy. And then I thought of the studies about whether women use more words.  (My colleague seemed quite pleased when I indicated at the end of my outburst that it would be my only soapbox for the day.)  I decided that I didn’t want to just make a quick verbal rant.  I wanted to think deeper into some of these issues and invite others to share their thoughts.  But I was also fighting the stereotype of talking too much “as a woman”.  So I figured that instead of ranting to my friends and colleagues in person, I will start a blog! (Well, that's an idea that came during my sleepless night last night -- who knows? I may come to regret it.)

If you have suggestions about topics that we should think more about, especially if they have ethical implications but haven’t been discussed much in the mainstream media or academia, please let me know!  I have been chatting with friends about the healthcare system, whether graduate students are exploited, patents and proprietary companies, and so much more.  Now I just have to find the time to write about the issues.