Antisocial Media: Monetizing Fear & Outrage

Filter bubbles. Facebook and Google’s business model is built upon this structure. These companies gather and store all your data. All of it. Even cell phone conversations. They use this data to create a profile for you. That profile is fed into an algorithm. That algorithm essentially creates a “Truman World” experience for everyone online: two, three a dozen, a thousand people, might enter the exact same search phrase in Google but get different results. The result you get reflects your profile (which contains a psychological and ideological picture of what makes you tick). The same goes for your news feed on Facebook and Twitter..

What is the risk? Fear and outrage are packaged and delivered to you so you will 1). Stay online longer, 2). Share your outrage with your friends, and 3). Subsequently keep your friends online longer so that 4). Your attitude can be shaped and/or you can spend money.

Facebook and Google have psychology departments that help them market to you and get you addicted to your smart device. Fear and outrage apparently are the most effective tools to use to keep you engaged.

This is problematic: because if today you are only anti vaccine curious in a year’s time Google’s algorithm will identify this and send you to anti vax sites as opposed to science based websites. They encourage your fear for profit.

The end result is curiosity turns into conviction in a few short months. Meanwhile Google has made additional advertising revenues off your increased screen time and society can add one more potential casualty to the needless measles epidemic. The people who believed the Clintons were running a pedophile ring at a restaurant were shaped by a similar technique on Facebook. The reason so many conservatives formed a more positive view of the Russians over the last three to four years likewise reflects how this online marketing model works. Basically ignorance gets recycled and reinforced by these filter bubbles. You think you know a thing or two but really you have been ascending Mount Stupid all along as per the Duning-Kruger effect.

This insidious shaping of opinion applies to politics, economics, culture, everything. You are up for grabs. I uncovered a new layer to this yesterday: I posted a comment on a site where I compared a char from an obscure movie to a real life politician. Within ten minutes.I returned back to FB and a friend had posted a meme about killing politicians behind a picture of the film character I had alluded to. What are the odds of that happening on it’s own? Facebook actually uses your activity and finds a common strand between us and then exposes you to some idea we can identify with together. Ideally we will make each other outraged and generate more screen time and revenue. Trudeau has issues but wow looking at all the people sharing Trudeau memery and outrage definitely has deleterious effects: you aren’t critical of policies but of people and constructive public dialogue breaks down or becomes impossible. How is democracy supposed to function if we are always angry and at one another’s throats…?

So creepy. Makes me scared for democracy because we cannot share anything resembling a narrative governed by a shared set of facts

Be aware that your Google searches and Facebook feed are weaponized in this way: it isn’t an accident that when you go searching for information to confirm your conviction that climate change is a hoax that you find it so easily.

You can prevent being forced into your own Truman World when Googling if you use a VPN (virtual private network). VPNs hide you and your searches from info gathering corporations. Try it sometime when buying plane tickets. You will get a different price compared to just doing a raw search. Why? Google and FB sold your data to other corporations. These crops have a profile on you that measures your tolerance to cost. So if you are loose with the purse strings expect to literally pay more for products online because you have been identified as an easy spender. The VPN hides you from corporations which means they present a price that actually reflects the market and not your profile.

Sapere aude.

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The Trump Effect: Hate Comes to Canada

Dozens of new “white identity” hate groups have emerged in Canada since Trump’s election. Chauvinists and racists existed in Canada well before Trump. But the President has normalized a type of speech giving permission to the impermissible under the pretext he’s standing up to political correctness.

You don’t want to be politically correct? Don’t be politically correct. But don‘t use that as an excuse to be an asshole. People should be decent to one another, not because we are required to use the right words, but because it’s the right thing to do. No, I won’t call you by the pronoun helicopter or “them”. But I’ll call you by your first name and extend a hand of friendship and fidelity to you.

I’ve tried my best to understand why people have given, and continue to give the President, such complete unqualified support. Marco Rubio acknowledged that the way Mr. Trump speaks is dangerous because not everyone who listens to him is “balanced” or “mentally healthy.” What has resulted is what happens when people trade their principles for power, e.g. a less stable, less tolerant, and more violent society.

There’s no sense to it…then again Steve Bannon is on record saying you’d have to destroy the system before you could rebuild it. Perhaps it makes sense to take Bannon (and by extension Trump) that they have no interest in being caretakers of an existing order but makers of a new one.

For my part I’d rather stick with the devil I do know…

The Study of History: The Medieval Model versus the Humanist Model

The enthusiasm people had for the Greeks and Romans during the Renaissance was largely because people started looking at history differently.

The way people think about the past reveals a lot about how they think about themselves. For example, medieval scholars divided history into two periods: an ancient world before the time of Christ (which was a time of darkness) and then the period after his resurrection (regarded as a time of light). We have not thought in these historical terms—times of darkness and light—for a long time. Nonetheless, up until about 1998 CE the majority of scholars still organized time by directly referencing the birth year of Jesus, e.g. Julius Caesar was assassinated om 44 BC (or 44 years before the birth of Jesus) or the Emperor Constantine died in 337 AD (337 years after birth).

In an effort to establish secular (or non-religious calendar), historians now use the acronyms BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era) instead of BC and AD. Interestingly, despite the fact Western society has not believed in the medieval view of history for centuries the BC/AD structure is still sometimes used exerting a continued and subtle influence on the way we think about history.[1]

Renaissance-era historians were humanists. Humanists were less preoccupied with religion compared to medieval writers. For this reason humanist historians formed a different model of history. Unlike their medieval counter-parts, Renaissance historians did not divide history into two but three periods:

  • The first age belonged to the ancient Greeks and Romans (it was regarded as a period light characterized by a flowering of culture and progress)
  • The second age, or middle-age, was a time of darkness or a “dark age” (humanists like Petrarch branded it as an age of cultural decadence and barbarism)
  • Humanists represented their own age as a new historical era of a special kind: a renaissance[2]—an age of light after darkness, an awakening after sleep, a rebirth after death

According to the humanist model of history, once Rome disappeared all that was good and beautiful was lost. However, light returned to the West once Petrarch (1304-1374 CE) re-introduced the world to the writings of Virgil and Cicero. Petrarch valued the literature of the Greeks and Romans above any other culture because of their emphasis on reason and logic in the pursuit of knowledge.

Another humanist thinker named Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536 CE) re-envisioned the history of religion in humanist terms. He argued that in the early days, the Catholic Church was a “beacon of light” surrounded by a sea of “pagan darkness”; however, the fall of the Roman Empire and flood of barbarians steered the Church from its true path. Erasmus observed the Church became so concerned with preserving its worldly power it forgot its original purpose: to preserve the simple message of Jesus as presented in the Gospels. Erasmus also blamed the Church’s problems on ignorant monks and mind-numbing scholastics (like Thomas Aquinas). He argued the clergy had become ineloquent and fixated with superstitions and medieval scholasticism[3] as opposed to Jesus’ simple message. Erasmus was optimistic though: he believed the rediscovery of Classical Greek and Roman literature meant the Church might possibly return to the simplicity and purity of its past.

Medieval historians believed they were living literally at the end of an age. Humanists, by contrast, felt they were living at the beginning of a new and brilliant period in human history. This filled them with a sense of optimism about the future. So while humanists knew both the Church and society needed reforming, they looked hopefully to a future Golden Age. This would be a time when Roman eloquence and Greek philosophy would be re-established; and this, it was reasoned, would revive a purer form of Christianity. Medieval historians and thinkers by contrast were not optimistic; they looked at the world as broken (full of sin). The world to medieval scholastics was something to be escaped, not celebrated or rediscovered.

The Importance of Analyzing & Criticizing History
If someone wanted to accurately forge (copy) a piece of writing created two hundred years ago they must know enough history to avoid anachronisms.[4] For example, if while reading an account of the Battle of Yorktown (1781 CE) the historian explains the Americans defeated the British by dropping atom bombs you should be skeptical, i.e. the first atom bomb was dropped in 1945 on Imperial Japan. Also, the Thirteen Colonies dropping nukes on England would be anachronistic because the technology (nukes) did not exist in the 18th century.

Humanists valued historical accuracy. For this reason they developed methods to test a document’s reliability. For example, who would be more of an authority on Christianity—the Apostle Paul who actually lived in the First Century or Pope Leo X (a pope living in the 16th century CE)? The humanist historian would argue Paul is the greater authority: Paul was closer in time to Jesus than Leo X; therefore, Paul was positioned better both historically and intellectually to discuss events related to Jesus’ time and thought. Lorenzo Valla (1406-1457 CE) used newly developed investigative techniques to prove that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery. The Catholic Church argued they received a “donation” in the 4th century from Emperor Constantine giving them control of vast parts of Italy. Valla looked at the language of the Donation document discerning it had actually been written in the 8th century, not the 4th. He pointed out that the word “fief” occurred in the document but this word was first used in the 8th century. Thus, there was no way Constantine—a person living in the pre-feudal 4th century—could have given Italy as a “fief” to the Catholic Church.

Erasmus applied similar critical techniques to studying the Bible. He translated the New Testament from Latin into Dutch and published it in 1516 CE. In his translation, he left out the following verse (commonly referred to as the Comma Johanneum) from the First Epistle of John that is the scriptural basis for belief in the existence of the Trinity. The text of 1 John 5:7-8 reads as follows:

And there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood, and these three agree in one.

Erasmus, like Valla, proved the first verse was not authentic. In particular, he found the reference to “the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost” was absent in all of the oldest available Greek editions of John’s epistle (letter); the verse was also absent in all the oldest available Latin manuscripts. Lastly, upon investigation he discovered that this verse was entirely unknown to any Christian writer before the Fourth Century CE (300s).

Erasmus argued, by appealing to the available evidence, that if the verse had existed, it certainly would have been quoted by writers at a time when the doctrine of the Trinity was the center of a theological controversy. The controversy about the Trinity actually threatened to tear the early Church part. The majority of Christians did not believe in the Trinity. Instead, most Christians—called Arians—believed in the idea of dualism, e.g. Jesus was the adopted not actual son of God. The Arians argued that the Holy Spirit was not a distinct person; it was just a quality Jesus and God shared in common. So, Erasmus reasoned, those who supported the idea of the Trinity would certainly have appealed to 1 John 5: 7-8 as evidence to disprove the Arian view. But they did not. They could not. They could not because John’s verse did not exist (yet). The controversy over the nature of God was eventually resolved in favor of the Trinity at the Council of Nicaea (325 CE). Erasmus concluded that the Catholic Church must have added the verse after the council ended to give scriptural authority to the doctrine of the Trinity.[5]

Textual criticism of this kind represents a more scientific approach to understanding history that emerged specifically during the Renaissance. Scholastics would have found a way to explain away the change to Epistle of John. Erasmus being a humanist believed truth was more important than appearances. Nonetheless, Renaissance-era historians were far from perfect: they tended to write in a flowery style sometimes sacrificing accuracy to elegance; they looked at history differently than we do; that is, they looked at it as a branch of literature (not its own branch of knowledge). Nonetheless, advances made by humanist historians helped secularize[6] historical writing and thinking. People still saw God at work in history; but they no longer automatically reverted to discussing God in order to make sense of events.

Renaissance historians were more secular in their outlook and conception of history compared to medieval thinkers. Medieval historians were convinced the course of history was simply the fulfilling of scripture, e.g. a savior was promised, a savior was born, and the world was saved. History demonstrated God’s dominion over humanity. In the humanist view history was a guide to life. You could learn from the past and apply those lessons to the present and the future. The study of history, according to the humanists, should inspire one to act virtuously while discouraging living a life of vice; history trains future statesmen in politics and war; it is the mother of experience and the grandmother of wisdom. Old men are said to be wise because their judgement rests on the accumulated experience of a lifetime; therefore, a right reading of history makes people wise. Thus, the new humanistic history emerging during the Renaissance was a secular description of the past; it focused on worldly matters, not God. The causes of events were not explained in terms of God’s will. Causes and motives were explained solely in human terms. The humanist approach remained the preferred model of historians well into even the 20th century.

Source: this article was created in part using Eugene F. Rice’s book The Foundations of Early Modern Europe, 1460-1559 (pages 79-83).

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[1] The modern world continues to make use of all sorts of primitive or medieval notions. For example, the ancient Greeks believed the white cloudy substance in the night sky was the milk of the goddess Hera. We still call our galaxy the “Milky Way” but no one believes Hera exists any longer. Also, we still use terms like “sun set” and sun rise” which reflects an ancient belief in a flat earth. In reality the sun neither sets nor rises; rather, the earth spins revealing the sun during the day and concealing it during the night.

[2] The term “Renaissance” was first prominently used by the French historian Jules Michelet in 1858, and it was set in bronze two years later by Jacob Burckhardt when he published his influential work The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.

[3] Scholasticism was represented by a school of thinkers who believed in the importance of preserving the power and influence of the Catholic Church above all else. For this reason they stressed the importance of making all human knowledge conform and agree with Church teachings and a literal reading of scripture. The problem with scholastics is they did not pursue knowledge for its own sake; instead, they were more concerned with preserving the appearance of the Church being the unquestioned leader and authority on science, on politics, economics, the law, and religion.

[4] An anachronism is a thing belonging to or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists, e.g. Romans did not have smart phones; therefore, if you were to read a “historical” account of Julius Caesar texting his friends on his smart phone this would be an example of an anachronism.

[5] Various editions of scripture have been changed or altered for different reasons. Martin Luther, for example, disliked the Epistle of James because it stressed the value of completing good works to “earn” salvation. Thus, Luther left James out of his German translation of Erasmus’ translation.

[6] Secularize: to separate from religious or spiritual connection or influences.

Imperialism Gives Way to Multiculturalism…?

Watching my cat look out the window and this random thought pops in my head: former 19th century empires–France, Germany and England for example–are the friendliest states in Europe to the idea of multiculturalism.

There are, of course, people in these countries who fear diversity; however, the majority of their populations are cosmopolitan in their outlook. Interestingly, Hungary and Poland–both countries occupied by outsiders throughout the 19th century–are the most resistant to immigration and the most cloistered. So, in something of an ironic twist, we have the countries which robbed the identity of nations 150 years ago now embracing those identities; and those states that had their identities robbed are the most reluctant to embrace diversity.

There appears to be a correlation, however strong or weak, between an imperial past and a multicultural present.

We Are Our Minds

We are our minds and they’re all we can offer to others. This might not be obvious, especially when there are things in life needing improvement, e.g. unrealized goals or relationships in need of attention. But it’s the truth. Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind and every relationship is as good or as bad as it is because of the minds involved. If you are perpetually angry, depressed, confused, and unloving, or your attention is elsewhere, it won’t matter how successful you’ve become or who is in your life–you won’t enjoy any of it. Not a single thing.

Everything we want to accomplish–to get in better shape, write a book, travel, make a career change–is something that promises if we do it fulfillment; but this is a false hope: most of us spend our time seeking happiness and security without acknowledging the underlying purpose of such a search: each of us is looking for a path back to the present (we are trying to find reasons to be satisfied now).

Why is it I can appreciate this at an abstract level but fail to implement it at the practical? Given enough time, I suppose, our mental software can be modified to a certain extent (despite the determinism of that blasted limbic system I’ve inherited).

Perhaps the most important realization I’ve had in all of this is my need to feel connected and be part of a community (and to contribute to the well being of that community). I learned this when I participated in an urban outreach program while in Washington, D.C. a few years ago but forgot the lesson for some reason. I’ve spent the better part of the last five years pretending to be a human being; it’s time to actually become one in the fullest sense of the word.

Love Wins

The following is the commencement address I gave for the graduation ceremony at LCBI High School. I wanted to share it with everyone because I believe firmly in its central message: we are all part of a single human family and love will overcome hate.

Distinguished guests, faculty, colleagues, friends, families, and of course, the graduating class of 2019, welcome. I’d also like to acknowledge those who could not be with us today. You are in our thoughts and occupy a special place in our hearts.

You’re a special class: there’s a world ranked racquetball player in there somewhere; a budding poet, essayist, teacher and engineer or two; there are artists, athletes, musicians, mechanics, thinkers and builders; a provincial hockey champion; a soccer player turned slam dunk artist; the host of a popular hunting channel on YouTube; and of course, a sleepy and bespectacled would-be theoretical physicist whom we’ll call Stephen. I see you’re organized into rows: have you figured out which rows contain the smartest students yet?

All kidding aside, you’re a fun, quirky, insightful, frequently feisty and intelligent group of young people. I look forward to working with and challenging you every day. I’ve particularly enjoyed our time spent in English together: there’s something about this particular classlikely the philosophical and theological aspectsmaking me feel what we were doing is meaningful and important (even necessary).

Over the last 20 years I’ve taught at a variety of schools; and in that time I’ve come to appreciate schools are a lot like people: each one has a unique personality. Some you like more than others. Some you look forward to seeing every day while others you’d just as soon avoid. LCBI is one of those places a person looks forward to seeing; and I take a lot of pride in what we do here, and what God accomplishes through us. Despite teaching here so long though, I’ve found it nearly impossible to explain why this place means so much to me. I’ve always felt I loved it here but for one reason or another failed articulating exactly why (like when you fall in loveit just sort of happens, no conscious explanation is necessary).

At the end of the second semester back in 2014, I gave my senior English students an opportunity to write an exit essay. The essay’s question was “What does LCBI mean to me?” There was no minimum or maximum length. The essay wasn’t for marks. I just wanted to give students an opportunity to reflect on their time here knowing that, at least in my experience, it can be difficult for many to say goodbye. In the process there were a number of wonderfully written and heartfelt responses. One such response, in particular, has stood out for me over the years. Kayden Johnson wrote a single word: family.

In a single word KJ captured perfectly what makes LCBI so special. Whether you identify as Christian or not, whether you practice a religion or not, we are part of the same family, you and I; as the Apostle Paul observes in First Corinthians we are brothers and sisters belonging to a single family brought together by Christ Jesus; and that family is built on faith, hope, and above all, love.

With that said, and based on how big of a weirdo some of y’all can be at times, there’s something else about this school making me feel particularly at home and at ease. Martin Luther observed we are free because we are fully forgiven children of God. We are no longer compelled to keep God’s Law out of fear in order to obtain salvation. Paul tells us we cannot earn salvation anyways; it’s an underserved gift given freely to us through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross by the grace of God. “A Christian,” Luther wrote, “is perfectly free, subject to none.” Yet, Luther presents us with a caveat: although we are “subject to none” we still have a responsibility to look after and care for one another.

The freedom of being Christian comes with responsibility. Thus, if you’ll permit me, I’d like to share some of my thoughts relating to that responsibility to love one another as members of a single human family.

Several years ago someone in Pakistan placed an ad in a newspaper offering a reward to anyone who killed a Canadianany Canadian. The ad was likely a response to then Canada’s involvement in the War in Afghanistan. Interestingly, an Australian dentist published an editorial responding to the strange request. He wanted to define what a Canadian was so non-Canadians would recognize them whenever they encountered one. I’d like to share part of that response with you today:

A Canadian [the Australian writes] can be English, or French, or Italian, Irish, German, Spanish, Polish, Russian or Greek. A Canadian can be Mexican, [Nigerian, Congolese, Cameroonian, Kenyan, or South African]. They can be Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean…Iranian, Asian, Arab, Pakistani or Afghan. A Canadian may also be an [Inuit], Cree, Metis, Mohawk, Blackfoot, Sioux, Dakota, or a member of one of the many other peoples known collectively as First Nations.

A Canadian lives in one of the most prosperous [countries] in the history of the world. The root of that prosperity can [in part] be found in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which recognizes the right of each person to [pursue their individual happiness in a society governed and secured under the rule of law].

A Canadian is generous and Canadians have helped out just about every other nation in the world in their time of need, never asking [anything] in return. Canadians welcome the best of everything, the best products, the best books, the best music, the best food, the best services and the best minds. But they also welcome the leastthe oppressed, the outcast and the rejected.

These are the people who built Canada.

You can try to kill a Canadian if you must…but in so doing you could [well] just be killing a relative or a neighbor. This is because Canadians are not a particular people from a particular place. [Canada is an idea.] Canadians are the embodiment of the human spirit of freedom. Everyone who holds to that spirit, everywhere, [is] a Canadian.

Now to my reckoning being Canadian means becoming a citizen of the world. Also, I think, as this short article implies, to be Canadian is to try and make a positive difference in that world. For example, in the wake of the Vietnam War in the 1970s, Canada accepted over 50,000 Vietnamese escaping communism. In 1956 Hungary unsuccessfully attempted to push out the occupying forces of the Soviet Union. Soviet tanks ruthlessly crushed the uprising displacing tens of thousands. Canada provided a haven for 50,000 Hungarians fleeing the subsequent reprisals and political repression.

During the middle of 20th century hundreds of thousands of people from every continent immigrated to Canada in the hope of making a new life for themselves and their families. Between 1890 and 1914 approximately two million people from countries like China, Japan, India, Ireland, Scotland, England, America, Poland, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Ukraine immigrated to Canada; they helped build Canada while contributing to the evolution of a new kind of countryone not founded upon the Old World model of “blood and soil” but one constructed upon the New World principles of freedom and liberty.

It’s vitally important to possess an understanding of our history, like the process followed by our ancestors who made Canada their home, in order to appreciate what’s happening in the present. However, at the risk of sounding pessimistic and to quote Hegel, if there is one lesson history teaches us it is we do not learn from our history.

In 2011 a civil war broke out in Syria displacing millions. Between 2016 and 2017 Canada welcomed 40,000 Syrian refugees fleeing an absolutely brutal conflict. Many Canadians felt a combination of compassion and unease in the wake of this particular wave of immigration. I’m not naive. I understand current events well enough appreciating the risks, actual and perceived, associated with Canada opening its borders in this way. Some Canadians, ones calling themselves nationalists, cautioned we shouldn’t accept so many Muslims. Nonetheless, the idealist in me, the Jesus in me, believes we did the right thing (despite the fear mongering).

And do not underestimate how thankful these men, women and children are to Canada for giving them a home. In May of 2016 a wildfire devastated the City of Fort McMurray. Rita Khanchet Kallas, a Syrian refugee who arrived in Calgary with her husband and son in December of 2015 wrote a message in Arabic on a Facebook page for a Calgary-based Syrian refugee group. “Canadians,” she wrote,”have provided us with everything and now we have a duty. We must help the people who lost their homes and everything in a fire in Oil City. Get ready, it’s time to fulfill.”

Within hours of posting the group was mobilized assembling food hampers, toys, clothes, and furniture to aid the families of Fort McMurray. This act was particularly gracious. You have to understand, the small Syrian community in Calgary had very little themselves. But they understood first hand what it meant for an entire city to lose their home. That’s something they could easily relate to because they went through the exact same thing themselves.

History teaches us is we do not learn from our history.

Social media is definitely new, but xenophobia (or hatred of the foreigner or the alien) is not.

I’ve watched, dismayed, as some Canadians with European sounding last names post fear-based stories to their social media timelines while complaining about how people with Syrian sounding last names were going to ruin the country.

We’ve been here before: many of the same Canadians complaining about Syrian refugees today are themselves the descendants of immigrants who were likewise labelled dangerous, strange, people who were going to wreck the country. The irony of this should not be lost on anyone possessing either a modicum of compassion or a basic knowledge of their own history; and just so we’re clear I’m not trying to be provocative or mean or single out how either this or that person is bad. I am just observing which, I suppose, is something of a resident hazard of being a historian.

And so we forget our history (particularly when times are difficult); and a country without a sense of its history is doomed to repeat its past mistakes.

There has been an unmistakable rise in the forces of nationalism and tribalism in the Western World over the last ten years; and it appears democracy and pluralism is in retreat everywhere. Populist governments are gaining more and more support because people can’t seem to come together to solve their problems. I find it troubling so many of us seem to be coming increasingly more tolerant of things a decade ago would’ve seemed impossible. I worry most in this moment for my Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters. I wonder what the future holds for them if hatred and hate speech is ever again allowed to go mainstream or become “normal”.

A friend of mine was working at a fruit stand when a lady came up and asked if any of the cherries were grown by Muslims. She was asking because she didn’t want to support Muslim businesses. This is how you destroy the democratic spirit: unlike dictatorships which end with the death of a single tyrant, democracy dies the death of a 1,000 such wounds.

This Muslim cherry episode reminds me of how Roman emperors once persecuted Christians whenever Rome’s economic or political situation wasn’t favourable. If Romans were focused on hating Christians they’d spend less time worrying about the emperor’s ineptitude.

Does that sound eerily familiar? History doesn’t necessarily repeat but it seems to rhyme.

Since the American presidential election in 2016 Canada has seen a 30% increase in the number of hate groups in the country (six of which are right here in Saskatchewan); and hate crime rates are correspondingly increasing–jumping a staggering 47% in 2017 alone, according to Stats Canada, and there’s no indication of this trend reversing any time soon.

Homo homini lupus. This Latin phrase first appeared in the Third Century BCE but could just as well have been written in 2019; translated into English it means “man is a wolf to man.”

Whether we’re talking about the ancient or the modern world, societies continue reverting to the politics of division; they do this so complex social issues like immigration or identity can be boiled down into simple solitudes and simple hatreds. The two recent attacks on synagogues in the United States, and the mosque attack in Quebec last year, point disturbingly to the reality the West has a long way to go after all when it comes to justice.

To the Graduands: St. Augustine once observed “hope has two daughters whose names are Anger and Courage: Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see they do not remain as they are.”

Therefore, do not be apathetic when hatred shows its cowardly face; do not allow yourselves to become accustomed to or accept hate speech or meanness as normal; what and how we say what we say matters; and I’m not trying to be politically correct. I’m appealing to common decency and Jesus’ commandment: love one another as I have loved you.

Do not turn a blind eye to injustice: evil only succeeds when men and women of good conscience sit back and do nothing; be willing to think in nuances, not platitudes; do not dismiss out of hand those who disagree with you. Too many of us are too easily offended; understand disagreement doesn’t make us enemies, it makes us human. So don’t argue to win, argue to learn. Be willing to change your mind…

It occurred to me there’s another reason why I love LCBI: Jesus. Jesus taught me, more than anyone else, to include the excluded; to fight for the underdog; to defend those incapable of defending themselves; to show compassion, patience and understanding; to delight in the success of others; to encourage because I’ve been encouraged; forgive because I’ve been forgiven; and to love because I am loved. Be fearless then, and courageous, in the face of prejudice and discrimination wherever you encounter it; and if you remember only one thing from our time together this afternoon, and it is implied by the quote written so boldly on the wall behind me, remember this: love wins.

“Let us realize”, Martin Luther King, Jr. observed, “that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Thus, if you’re ever unsure what to do when confronted with any of the situations I’ve talked about the right answer is always to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Before closing I have one favor I’d like to ask of everyone gathered here this afternoon: whether you know them or not could you take the hand of the person or persons sitting next to you?

[Promote a figurative “crossing of the aisle” between the rows separated by the center aisle.]

One of my favorite moments in A. A. Milne’s The House on Pooh Corner is when Piglet is trying to catch up to his friend, Winnie the Pooh.

“Pooh?” Piglet whispers.

“Yes, Piglet?”

“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”

Building a better world means, at least in part, removing the barriers to our understanding and accepting one another. The awkwardness you’re possibly experiencing right now, holding the hand maybe of a complete stranger, captures perfectly the nature of that barrier towards building a better world: it is a mental and psychological one. Change our thinking and we can change the world. My challenge to you, right now, is to weaken that wall by turning a potential stranger into a friend. So gently squeeze the hand of your neighbors and reassure them, “I am sure of you.”

The transcendental quality of lovethrough even the simplest of gesturesfills me with hope because, even if you try to improve the world in some measure and fail, you can still take some consolation you’ve allied yourself with Something greater. I suspect love, in a certain sense, even survives the Cosmos’ end: hugs transcending time; joy outliving the joyful; gentleness and acceptance persisting past the end of all things; and the gravity of a deep upwelling of feeling flows even past the bounds of a finite physical universe.

And so here we are, at the end: grads do you recall back in September when I told you today would come faster than you thought? I told you not to be in too much of a hurry to finish the year because endings, when it comes to LCBI, are particularly emotional experiences. I know this because I’ve said goodbye to my fair share of colleagues and students who I miss, love, and who occupy my thoughts whenever the sentimental impulse takes me. Thus, “I will not say do not weep,” J. R. R. Tolkien’s Gandalf explains to his friends while preparing to leave Middle Earth forever for the Gray Havens, “for not all tears are an evil.”

Be thankful we’ve had this time together understanding that when one one door closes so opens another.

Thank you.