19 July 2012

Dolce & Gabbana’s Spring 2013 collection

Compared to Dolce & Gabbana’s last collection for Fall 2012 (fashion writer Tim Blanks called it “opulent gilded arrogance”), Spring 2013 is less glamorous and a lot more approachable. Two things impress me about the new collection: the generously-fitted, softly-tailored pieces reminiscent of my favourite Italian designer Giorgio Armani, and the casting of models who aren’t an army of clone hunks with standard issue 8-packs and identically angled jaws.

The refreshing variety of male models lends the clothes a greater empathy than they would have otherwise possessed. I never cared much for D&G before because I couldn’t identify with their regular models. I’m not 6 feet tall with a classically handsome face and the musculature of a Greco-Roman god (well, only on Tuesdays), and the clothes were usually cut to fit this masculine ideal. Altering their proportions to suit someone of my diminutive stature would only make me look like some runty kid wearing clothes that are too grown up for him. This ill-fitted ‘look’ may have a certain insouciant charm to it (like much of the D&G spring collection), but I would feel awkward in clothes that seem forced on me.

A selection from Dolce & Gabbana Spring 2013:

I’m also very much liking D&G’s recent ad campaigns. The semi-sepia and colour photographs of multi-generational Italians (including the delightful Monica Bellucci) in traditional clothes with a D&G update are heartwarming and tender. I do prefer the understated designs and muted colours of heritage Italian menswear over the loud, busy patterns found in traditional British and American styles. Give me plain pinstripes over tartan, houndstooth or glen plaid any day.


18 July 2012

Your privilege is showing, Ms Nusrat

I have no issue with Muslim women choosing to wear the hijab. Even within the constraints of their faith, there seems to be enough latitude for them to exercise stylish self-expression with the hair-covering fabric. I can also respect their wish to dress modestly, even though I find their idea of ‘modest’ to be rather excessive. Compared to the niqab or the burqa, the hijab is arguably a less oppressive – certainly less dismal – garment that doesn’t erase its wearer’s identity.

The hijab can be chic.

But none of this should imply that the hijab is free from oppressive connotations. Let’s not kid ourselves; it isn’t. Being a Muslim garment, the hijab is inevitably bound to the doctrines of Islam, including those that render women second-rate human beings who should be subservient to men. It’s one thing for a woman to wear a hijab of her own volition, quite another when that same woman misrepresents her choice as being something that it is not: an unequivocal act of liberation.

17 July 2012

Why are we giving our tax money to anti-vaxers?

Parents who refuse to vaccinate their children are exploiting a loophole in the recently scrapped Maternity Immunisation Allowance (MIA) scheme that lets them receive government payments despite not vaccinating their kids. The MIA was axed by the Gillard government at the start of this month, but parents who are eligible for it can still claim payments until 30 June 2013. Part of the criteria for eligibility is that their child “is fully immunised or has an approved exemption by 30 June 2012.” And one type of ‘approved exemption’ is for parents who are ‘conscientious objectors’ to child vaccination.

Why are Australian taxpayers giving their tax money to parents who insist on exposing other children to the risk of (totally preventable) disease? Anti-vaxers and organisations that promote their cause like the misleadingly named Australian Vaccination Network are ignorant populists who spread lies and misinformation about vaccines. Their attitude towards child vaccinations, far from being simply a matter of personal choice, has a harmful impact on others. By choosing not to vaccinate their kids, these irresponsible parents compromise the herd immunity effect that protects the larger population from diseases like whooping cough, meningitis and measles. That they are demanding to be paid by the government for doing this is utterly disgraceful.

Anti-vaxers are usually not qualified to speak with any authority on the subject of vaccines and their effects. Yet medical experts who are qualified to discuss the issue are constantly having to defend their position from ‘concerned parents’ who haven’t got a clue about immunology or epidemiology, and also lack good critical thinking skills. Anti-vax arguments rely on appeals to emotion, appeals to nature, the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, cherry picking of facts and using anecdotal evidence rather than hard data and solid statistics.

Steven Novella has written about the problem of anti-vax attitudes among the general public. It’s a US-centric perspective, but Novella’s points apply to anywhere in the world where science and reason are meeting resistance from ignorance, lies and irrationality.

HT: Pen Penh


11 July 2012

Is eugenics really such a bad thing?

Kenan Malik is a critic of a purely science-based morality, the sort promoted by thinkers like Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape (2010). Malik doesn’t believe that ethical issues are amenable to scientific reductionism. In his review of The Moral Landscape, he makes this criticism of Harris’s ideal morality:

Moral norms seem not to emerge through a process of social engagement and collective conversation, nor in the course of self-improvement, but rather are laws to be revealed from on high [by science] and imposed upon those below.

Malik recently wrote a blog post expanding on his analogy of scientific morality as revealed laws (the religious connotation is made obvious in the title of his post). Again, he challenges the assumptions of those like Harris who view morality as simply being a question of facts, which science can discover and present, indisputable. Malik mentions the bioethicist Julian Savulescu, who has argued in favour of a benign form of eugenics that will remove the “genes and proteins associated with poor impulse control as well as those for psychopathy and anti-social personality disorder” while promoting “genes for compassion and moral thinking.”

So far, so controversial.

I am inclined to adopt the scientific view of morality as espoused by Harris and Savulescu, though it is to Malik’s credit that his counter-arguments have made me reexamine my position, if not entirely abandon it. I think that when one accepts a materialist conception of human personality (or the mind), one has to also accept that neurobiological manipulation can alter people's character traits. So why not do so to make them more moral?

Malik rebuts Savulescu’s idea of positive eugenics with examples of how nominally bad traits like aggression can be good in the right context, and vice-versa for nominally good traits like trust and co-operation. He writes:

But is it a good that trust be enhanced in all circumstances? After all, would not authoritarian regimes and even democratic politicians welcome a more trustful, and therefore a less questioning, population? Is aggression always bad? Is the aggression that the Arab masses have shown, and continue to show, in taking to the streets in defiance of brutal authoritarian regimes equivalent to the aggression of those authorities in brutalising and murdering the protestors? And if not does it make any sense to suggest, as Savulescu does, that ‘our futures may depend upon making ourselves wiser and less aggressive’, including through the ‘compulsory’ use of serotonin [a neurotransmitter that contributes to feelings of happiness and well-being]?

Good points. But as I responded in a comment to Malik’s post, what about undeniably pernicious traits like a propensity for sexual predation or rape? For violent psychopathy or homicidal urges? I wrote:

If one accepted a materialist conception of the mind, then wouldn’t it be an uncontroversial good to use medical/scientific means to purge these sorts of tendencies from people? And if you answer “no”, what would be the moral justification for letting a portion of society continually pose a (perhaps fatal) risk to others?

Malik replied that my question was an important one that “gets to the heart of the debate about what we mean by a ‘materialist view of the mind’”, and that he will write a proper post on this topic soon, hopefully within the next few days. I look forward to his (very likely persuasive) answer to the rather utilitarian dilemma my question poses. Stay tuned!


06 July 2012

Idiocy does not deserve respect

There are some pretty awesome rock formations in County Antrim, Northern Ireland called the Giant’s Causeway. Here’s what they look like (click to enlarge):

Photo credit: Andy McInroy

Wikipedia describes how these strange rock columns were formed:

Some 50 to 60 million years ago, during the Paleogene period, Antrim was subject to intense volcanic activity, when highly fluid molten basalt intruded through chalk beds to form an extensive lava plateau. As the lava cooled rapidly, contraction occurred. Horizontal contraction fractured in a similar way to drying mud, with the cracks propagating down as the mass cooled, leaving pillarlike structures, which are also fractured horizontally into “biscuits”. In many cases the horizontal fracture has resulted in a bottom face that is convex while the upper face of the lower segment is concave, producing what are called “ball and socket” joints. The size of the columns is primarily determined by the speed at which lava from a volcanic eruption cools. The extensive fracture network produced the distinctive columns seen today. The basalts were originally part of a great volcanic plateau called the Thulean Plateau which formed during the Paleogene period.

These are the facts. But the newly built visitors centre at the Giant’s Causeway will also include a creationist explanation of the area’s geology. The UK’s National Trust, custodian of landmarks like the Giant’s Causeway, has allowed the creationist Caleb Foundation to promote their religious views alongside the scientific facts in one of the centre’s exhibits. Contradicting the facts given above, visitors will be told that the Giant’s Causeway is a result of the Biblical flood 4500 years ago.

The National Trust said that its decision to include creationist lies was because it wanted to “reflect and respect” the fact that some ignorant religionists reject the findings of “mainstream” science, which refute the teachings of their holy book. It’s political correctness gone mad.

This is a misguided attempt to create ‘debate’ where there should be none. As PZ Myers puts it in his typically forthright manner:

Just because idiots disagree with science doesn’t mean there is a serious debate. There is no scientific argument over whether the earth is less than 10,000 years old or more than 4 billion, just as there is no scientific debate over whether stars are little holes punched in the firmament, or whether the moon is a great wheel of cheese drifting overhead.

Shame on the National Trust for pandering to religious stupidity. By respecting creationist nonsense, it disrespects the intelligent, curious people visiting a remarkable site.


05 July 2012

When cultural relativism becomes racism

Alex Aan
Human rights activist Maryam Namazie has a blog post about a ‘letter to the editor’ whose writer displays a contemptible sort of cultural relativism. In his letter responding to a petition for Indonesian atheist Alexander Aan’s release from prison (Aan was found guilty of blasphemy for posting atheist statements on Facebook), Raymond Carlise writes:

I have considered Edward Conduit’s appeal to sign the petition in defence of the Indonesian atheist who has been jailed for saying there is no God, but have concluded that I cannot sign [the] Avaaz petition for Alex.

There may well be no God for Alex, as for you or for me. With the Indonesians however it’s evidently a different matter. The limits of subjectivity and of objectivity have to be recognized.

So Raymond Carlise is an atheist who thinks that non-Indonesians have no business telling Indonesians to respect the human rights and civil liberties of their fellow citizens. How magnanimous of him! Clearly for Carlise the “limits of subjectivity and of objectivity” preclude freedom of thought and expression for Indonesian atheists like Alex Aan. Carlise is basically saying to Alex, “You did this to yourself, so tough luck.”

Liberals who share Carlise’s cultural relativism seem blind to the double standards they’re championing. They totally heart those wonderful things called ‘human rights’ and ‘civil liberties’, but hey, if a different culture doesn’t think they’re all that wonderful, more power to it! Who cares if other societies jail atheists/mutilate the genitals of girls/deny women the vote? My own enlightened society doesn’t (phew!), and that’s all that matters to me.

These same liberals are likely to be infected with the postmodernist idea that any one culture’s moral norms are just as valid as those of others, including those of the so-called West. To believe otherwise is to be a racist, a cultural bigot. But atheist writer and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali points out that it’s actually the opposite – cultural relativists are the ones being racist, for their refusal to oppose practices like persecution of atheists and female genital mutilation (FGM) condemns non-Westerners to pain and suffering that Westerners wouldn’t tolerate for their own cultural group.

Here’s a video from the Global Atheist Convention held in Melbourne earlier this year, where Hirsi Ali joins Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris for a panel discussion. Hirsi Ali makes her argument that cultural relativism can become a form of racism (and worse) at time mark 0:07:13.

Referring to FGM carried out by British Muslims while a ‘culturally sensitive’ government allows it to happen for fear of being thought racist or Islamophobic, Hirsi Ali says:

If you think through the logic of racism, if little [Muslim] girls of seven, eight years old cannot be protected by British law, then you start to wonder what exactly is racist. If the genitals of little white girls were being cut off, there would be enormous outrage.

Cultural relativists like Raymond Carlise should seriously reconsider their position. If they think that they occupy the moral high ground by refusing to judge the moral failings of another culture, they’re only fooling themselves. Don’t be like Carlise. Sign the petition calling for Alex Aan’s release, or write to the Indonesian government to let them know that human rights are for everyone, not just privileged Western liberals.