Maternal Cannibalism and Communion in the Novel and Film Life of Pi

NOTE: The following is an abridged and edited version of an article I wrote published in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Volume 27, Number 1, Spring 2015, pp. 1-15 (University of Toronto Press). The full article can be found right here. Sources for all borrowed photographs and artwork are linked to via each individual image. If you click on the image, it will take you to my source.
Book CoverAt one point in the novel Life of Pi (2001), sixteen-year-old Pi Patel finds himself and his parents trapped between a Muslim imam, a Christian priest, and a Hindu pandit, each of whom was initially cordial and inviting when he believed Pi was one of his own (71-77). However, after the religious leaders discover Pi’s simultaneous practice of all three of their religions, they turn on each other.

Pi's Three Wise Men

The imam declares both Hindus and Christians idolaters, claiming also that Hindus are caste-system slave drivers and that Christians are pig-eating cannibals. The priest denounces Hindus for worshipping cows and believing in cartoon strip myths and then denigrates Islam’s Prophet for being little more than an illiterate epileptic. For his part, the pandit accuses Muslims of being uncivilized polygamists and Christians of kneeling before a white colonial God. Through all of this, Pi’s parents, also unaware of their son’s multifaith practice, watch bewildered. This moment of religious multiculturalism turned upside down, while certainly humorous, is also quite aggressive and intolerant. Yet Pi has the last word, reminding everyone, ‘‘Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true’ ’’ (76). Although what he calls his “introduction to interfaith dialogue” (77) is transformed into the epitome of interfaith bigotry, Pi reminds his three mentors that religion is supposed to be about loving God.

Later, lost on the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat and blind from near starvation, Pi encounters a blind man in another boat and engages him in an odd conversation about food (267–84). At first Pi dismisses the meeting as a figment of his imagination; but after the man describes his love of beef tongue, tripe, pancreas, and calf ’s brains, Pi wonders if he might be conversing with his own carnivorous lifeboat companion, a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. After noticing his French accent, however, Pi realizes the man is not a tiger. As part of this journey into what will quickly become a cannibalistic theatre of the absurd, Pi tells a parable about a banana that grew and grew until it fell from a tree and was eaten by a person who felt better after eating it. In fact, he tells that parable twice (278, 281–82). But after Pi apologizes for no longer having the banana (because an orangutan distracted him), the man leaps onto Pi’s boat to strangle and eat him. Luckily for Pi, Richard Parker kills the man first. The next day, his sight returned, Pi reluctantly uses strips of the man’s flesh to fish, later eating some of that flesh himself. As Pi apologetically confesses, his suffering was unremitting and his madness was “driven by the extremity of [his] need” (284).

The Other Blind Man

As it happens, although the parable Pi tells appears benign, it actually points to another act of cannibalism, one far more traumatizing than the eating of murderous French flesh.

Neither of the above “scenes” are visualized in Ang Lee’s film, Life of Pi (2012).

They appear only in the novel written by internationally raised Canadian Yann Martel. However, I want to suggest that these moments do exist in Lee’s film because they pervade it as its filmic unconscious. In spite of Lee removing them, each is so central to understanding Martel’s tale that Life of Pi (hereafter referred to as LoP) would lose much of its power without their psychic energy.

The interfaith conflict scene underscores the multicultural hope underlying both novel and film. The blind Frenchman scene reveals the cannibalism that Pi cannot admit,
PI's Mother at Festivalwhich he must use faith, love, and sublimation to ‘‘reverse-transubstantiate’’ into interfaith communion. In short, in spite of the claim that LoP will make you believe in God (viii), Yann Martel’s tale is really a story about why Pi Patel still has faith even though he had no choice but to eat his own mother to live.

In the first of two stories Pi tells about his ordeal, he shares his lifeboat with four animals—a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a tiger—three of whom perish: the hyena kills and eats the zebra and then kills Orange Juice, the orangutan, but the hyena is killed and eaten by Richard Parker, the tiger.

Life_of_Pi__Animals on Life Boat  Tiger and Zebra

Pi spends the rest of his journey alone with Richard Parker, whom he trains using techniques common to circuses, zoos, and behavioural psychology.

taming-inner-tiger

Meercats and Pi on Island  After resting for a time on a carnivorous algae island full of meerkats, Pi and Richard Parker eventually land in Mexico, where Richard Parker disappears into the forest and Pi leaves for Canada (Martel 2001, 107–318). Pi tells his second story because his first is not believed by two Japanese officials charged with investigating the sinking of the ship Pi nearly died on. However, he precedes his second story by accusing the investigators of only wanting something that will not surprise them, something which will confirm what they already know and will not make them think differently: “You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry,yeastless factuality” (336).

Pi_and_Japanese_OfficialsPi then tells a story in which he shares his lifeboat with a wounded Buddhist sailor, a French cook, and his mother (337–45). In that story the cook kills and eats the sailor and then kills Pi’s mother, throwing her body overboard. The cook is subsequently killed and eaten by Pi. After that, Pi remains alone until he reaches the shores of Mexico. If we accept the second story as the truth, then psychoanalytically the first story is an allegory of projection and displacement: the zebra is the sailor, the hyena the cook, the orangutan Pi’s mother, and Pi Richard Parker.

animals_from_life_of_pi  The animals are people

Several writers acknowledge a psychoanalytic logic at play in LoP in which allegory operates through displacement and projection as sublimation to mask the trauma of Pi’s cannibalism (Scherzinger and Mill 2013; Mensch 2007; Stratton 2004). They treat Pi’s displacement and projection of his own cannibalism onto the character of the cook, who is further displaced onto the character of the blind Frenchmen, as properly unconscious. That allows them to diagnose repressed cannibalism and promptly end their analyses. But as we know from both the second story and the blind Frenchman scene, Pi is all too aware that both he and the cook engaged in cannibalism. There is nothing unconscious about it; he admits it to the investigators (Martel 2001, 337). To understand what is really displaced, projected, and sublimated in that scene, we must ask: What exists in the gap (in the unconscious) between Pi’s stories that he cannot say? The answer can be found in the novel more easily because the film buries it very deeply indeed, but it exists in both representations as the return of the repressed, in the form of sublimated narrative slips and symbolic disparities.

When Pi describes how the cook killed his mother, he says that her body was thrown overboard. In the novel the details are gruesomely described, whereas in the film Pi trails off without finishing. He relegates the following details to the film’s unconscious (but not his own): after the cook kills Pi’s mother, he throws Pi her head and Pi drops it in the ocean in fear and shock; the cook then drinks her blood and only after that throws her body overboard. The problem is, gruesome details included or not, his story makes little narrative sense. In both the novel and the film the cook is portrayed as a dominant, greedy, extremely hungry man who wastes nothing. When the sailor dies, the cook takes his time stripping the body of all its flesh before throwing the carcass overboard. In the novel he even greedily swings his arms “in a holy terror of hunger” just for flies (Martel 2001, 337), and in the film he eats a rat when there is still food on the boat. Thus, according to the logic of Pi’s own story, the cook would never have thrown anything overboard, animal or human, dead or alive, without first stripping it of everything edible. Pi cannot say what really happened on that boat but neither can he construct a logical, consistent alternative; at least not in the second story, where he is forced to be literal. In the first story, however, in the animal story, he is able to sublimate what really happened, first via the tale of the blind Frenchman and then via the story of the carnivorous island.

Meerkat-Island-2The island stands out as particularly significant because it is not represented in the second story—and yet it cannot be explained without it.

A beautiful vegetative paradise inhabited only by small, furry meerkats through the day, at night it undergoes a chemical reaction and becomes carnivorous, devouring anything alive on the ground or in its pools of water.

Life-of-Pi-Floating-Algae-Island-of-DeathPi discovers the island is carnivorous after he finds a complete set of human teeth wrapped in leaves like fruit, evidence of a person the island once devoured. In the novel, the investigators cannot make sense of that. After they determine the allegorical relationship between the humans and the animals, they ask, “what about the island? Who are the meerkats? . . . And those teeth? Whose teeth were those in the tree?” (Martel 2001, 346). The correspondences between zebra and sailor, hyena and cook, orangutan and mother, and tiger and boy are all made explicit; but the island and the teeth, like the blind Frenchman scene, are asymmetrical in Pi’s allegory. Both segments need to be understood psychoanalytically as sublimation, and as radical projections and displacements in the form of pure dream logic. Appearing immediately after Pi admits (in the novel) to cannibalizing the blind Frenchman, the island is the transformed version of the most socially unacceptable part of Pi’s ordeal, the one thing he cannot say or think, even to himself: Pi Patel did not just skin and eat the cook; he ate his mother as well. It is that which is repressed in the gap between Pi’s stories. In order to survive, he had no choice but to commit maternal cannibalism.

There is an image in the film that appears to contradict this interpretation. After Pi discovers the tooth wrapped in leaves, the film cuts to an extreme long shot of the island shaped like a human body; however, it is a non descript human body, appearing neither male nor female.

The Human IslandThis image supports the island representing cannibalism in general, but it could be argued the island is the cook projected and displaced. Such a reading would seem consistent with the island appearing in the novel immediately after Pi admits to eating a piece of the Frenchman. But the island cannot just represent the cook, if it does at all. In the novel, Pi describes the island as “Gandhian” (300), thus invoking the religious inclusivity he defended when confronted by his three angry mentors and two bewildered parents. But there is nothing Gandhian about the cook. In both novel and film the cook is described as disgusting, a monster, an animal, and a brute: “His mouth had the discrimination of a garbage heap” (337). The island, however, is described as a vegetative paradise, a Garden of Eden: “brilliantly green, a green so bright and emerald that, next to it, vegetation during the monsoons was drab olive” (285). Pi adds to this, invoking his multifaith beliefs, “Green is a lovely colour. It is the colour of Islam. It is my favourite colour” (285). He reminds us, in fact, that the Garden of Eden is an interfaith parable common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Also, whereas the cook has monstrous appetites (flies and rats) and the bloody dishes enjoyed by the blind Frenchman (beef tongue, tripe, pancreas, and calf’s brains) disgust Pi, the island offers delicious vegetarian seaweed for him to eat, connecting it to the Hinduism of his mother. The island is multicultural and vegetative, whereas on the ship before it sank, the cook bullied everyone, even the young Buddhist sailor, into eating meat and gravy.

Life of Pi CookThus the cook cannot be associated with Gandhian cultural tolerance.

Furthermore, the island is filled with gentle, unaggressive meerkats for Richard Parker to eat, animals that almost willingly offer themselves to the tiger: “they . . . were jumping up and down on the spot, as if crying, ‘My turn! My turn! My turn!’” (298).

MeercatsAlthough killed and eaten, the meerkats do not represent the cook’s cannibalized flesh. They are Pi’s mother displaced onto Orange Juice, who is then displaced onto them. In the novel, when Orange Juice climbs onto the lifeboat, Pi describes her as “gentle and unaggressive her whole life,” offering herself to him like the meerkats, “her never-ending arms surrounding me” (143). Even when Pi finds the tooth, a symbol of the island’s worst, he explicitly acknowledges it might be a woman’s tooth: “How much time had he—or was it she?—spent here?” (313). In other words, it is not just the meerkats who are his mother, but the whole island, although it is also Pi himself. After realizing the implications of the tooth, Pi says, “Bitterness welled up in me. The radiant promise it offered during the day was replaced in my heart by all the treachery it delivered at night” (313). Here treachery is Pi’s displaced guilt, but not the guilt of having eaten the cook because Pi already admits to that. It is Pi’s shame for having done the unthinkable, for having eaten his own mother; the tooth is the warning that such a meal cannot be sustained. The island as an artistic creation of beauty is double displacement and pure sublimation. In fact, in the first story Pi and Richard Parker are given two big meals: first the flying fish and then the island of algae and meerkats. The cook is displaced onto the fish, not the island; Pi’s mother is displaced onto the island.

But the final and most compelling proof of Pi’s maternal cannibalism lies not in the symbolism of the island, there for all to see in the film as well as the novel, but back in that scene which the film buries so deep in its unconscious. As a doubled example of the return of the repressed, Pi tells his banana parable not once but twice to the blind Frenchman in the other lifeboat: “Once upon a time there was a banana and it grew. It grew until it was large, firm, yellow and fragrant. Then it fell to the ground and someone came upon it and ate it [and afterwards that person felt better]” (278 and 281–82, with the phrase in brackets only appearing in the second version). In both novel and film, Orange Juice floats up to Pi’s lifeboat on a raft of bundled bananas and, as we know, Orange Juice is Pi’s mother.

Orange Juice on Bananas drawing Mother on BananasIn other words, once upon a time there was a boy who loved his mother, but then she fell to the ground and he came upon her and ate her and afterwards he felt better. He felt better but he had to repress that feeling because it is not culturally acceptable. The book represses it too, burying it beneath symbolism. The film represses it even deeper.

In a traditional psychoanalytic reading it would be very hard to avoid the obvious oedipal conclusion of Pi engaging in maternal cannibalism. I do not deny that such a reading can easily be justified by the text. However, while it is certainly tempting to imagine especially pre-oedipal cannibalistic greed in LoP given the circumstances of Pi’s trauma, in the logic of Martel’s story the traumatic event Pi defends against occurs as the result of violence and alimentary need from when Pi is nearly an adult. With respect to the ordeal that this story outlines and asks us to engage with, Pi does not repress childhood psychic desire; he represses adult psychic trauma. For that reason it is not possible for oedipal desire to lead us to the “better story” of Pi’s experience. It may very well be that Pi has unresolved oedipal issues in this story; but if that is the case, it has little to do with why he ate his mother or why he constructed an elaborate tale about animals to hide that he ate her.

The better story of Pi’s maternal cannibalism represents not early childhood desire but an interfaith form of Christian communion.

communion_elementsAlthough the question of the “real presence” of Christ in communion has been debated for centuries and not all Christians accept the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation—in which the substance of communal bread and wine literally changes into the body and blood of Christ—there is a general understanding that Christian communion is “highly sublimated” (Test 2011, 100). That is to say, even when thought of as entirely symbolic, the ritualized eating of the body and blood of Christ to achieve union with God cannot really escape the concept of cannibalism. In fact, in From Communion to Cannibalism (1990), Maggie Kilgour states bluntly that the metaphor of the host reveals “a potential for cannibalism in the sacrament of the Eucharist” (15).

Communion Cannibalismin LoP, in both novel and film (especially in the film), Pi’s maternal cannibalism is sublimated so deeply, under so many layers of projection and displacement, that it nearly disappears. However, much like when communion is just “a memorial of the suffering of Christ” that only metaphorically points to his sacrifice (McGrath 1997, 514), Pi’s story of cannibalism operates as a memorial of his mother’s suffering that metaphorically points to her sacrifice: a Hindu mother’s Christian sacrifice offered in answer to her son’s Islamic prayers. By offering her body and blood so that Pi may eat and live, his mother gives herself as a communion host to her son. The twist is that Pi reverse-transubstantiates her flesh and blood into symbols and metaphors rather than the other way around.

Although communion is visually absent in the film, it is referenced twice in the novel: once when the Muslim imam accuses the priest of being a cannibal and once when Pi adjusts himself to life at sea with a tiger: “I practiced religious rituals that I adapted to the circumstances—solitary Masses without priests or consecrated Communion hosts, darshans without murtis, and pujas with turtle meat for Prasad, acts of devotion to Allah not knowing where Mecca was” (231). His communion hosts may not have been consecrated by a priest, but they were offered in sacrificial love. In Christian theology, Christ offered his body and his blood in communion out of love. By dying to protect him, Pi’s Hindu mother does the same. And although the symbolism of the sacrifice is Christian first, the communion with God that it represents is multifaith. The Muslim who teaches Pi to pray is a Sufi mystic who seeks “fana, union with God, and his relationship with God was personal and loving” (67).

krsna-opens-his-mouthThe Hinduism through which the universe makes sense to Pi offers “the gentle pull of relationship” (53) in part through Prasad, “that sugary offering to God that comes back to us as a sanctified treat” (52).

In the novel, the adult Pi living in Toronto still practices all three of his religions; in the film, the adult Pi in Montreal still practices all three faiths and he teaches a course on Jewish mysticism at the university. Even his name, Pi, the irrational and “secular” number 3.14, situates him in communion within an infinite universe where God exists beyond the reason/faith dichotomy.

life-of-pi--religion

The novel initially had a rough start because of an unfortunate release date of September 11, 2001; but following a marketing campaign that claimed the book would “make you believe in God,” and after winning multiple awards, Martel’s tale did become an international best-seller. The coincidence of the novel’s publication occurring on September 11 combined with the reality of the film being released after a decade’s worth of increased global religious tension creates a context in which the multiculturalism and interfaith communion celebrated in this story become all the more appealing. Part of the reason the interfaith conflict scene is so easily removed from the film yet still pervades its unconscious is precisely because of how prevalent religious conflict is in the world today. The brutal, verbally violent assaults Pi’s three wise men unleash on each other in their attempts to convert Pi solely to their own faiths underlies both novel and film, but they also pave the way for LoP to offer a unique solution to religious intolerance. Interfaith communion does not hybridize different notions of religious relationship; it reveals them to already be the same thing: love.

life_of_pi____by_megatruh-d5noigd

The horror of Pi’s ordeal does not discount that love, even when expressed in a brutally absurd and violent scene wherein the cannibalisation of a murderous carnivore is used to mask the unremitting suffering and madness of having to eat one’s own mother. There are very good psychological reasons why Pi cannot fully acknowledge the sacrifice his mother made for him, but that neither discounts her sacrifice nor the multifaith symbolism surrounding it. It also does not mean that Pi’s cannibalism represents the horror of a taboo form of savagery. Under the circumstances, Pi could not have done otherwise; and understood as a form of communion, Pi’s horror is easily sublimated into a story about a boy, four animals, and a vegetative island. Pi may never be able to literally understand his Hindu mother’s Christian sacrifice offered in answer to his own Islamic prayers, but he does not need to understand her sacrifice literally.

life_of_pi_priestIn both novel and film he cannot understand the horror of Christ’s sacrifice either: “What a downright weird story. What peculiar psychology. I asked for another story, one that I might find more satisfying” (59); but he receives the same explanation repeatedly: “Love. That was Father Martin’s answer” (60).

So it goes with Pi’s mother. So it goes with Pi’s multicultural faith. Love.

Pi's Mother in the Ocean

References

Kilgour, Maggie. 1990. From communion to cannibalism: An anatomy of metaphors of incorporation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1515/9781400860784.

Martel, Yann. 2001. Life of Pi. Toronto: Vintage Canada.

McGrath, Alister E. 1997. Christian theology: An introduction. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Mensch, James. 2007. “The intertwining of incommensurables: Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.” In Phenomenology and the non-human animal: At the limits of experience, ed. Corinne Michelle Painter and Christian Lotz, 135–48. Dordrecht: Springer.

Scherzinger, Karen, and Colleen Mill. 2013. “Allegory, the fantastic and trauma in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.” Scrutiny2 Issues in English Studies in Southern Africa 18 (1): 53–66.

Stratton, Florence. 2004. “‘Hollow at the core’: Deconstructing Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.” Studies in Canadian Literature 29 (2): 5–21.

Test, Edward M. 2011. “‘A dish fit for the gods’: Mexican sacrifice in De Bry, Las Casas, and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 41 (1): 93–115.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1215/10829636-2010-013.

Life of Pi book cover art owned by Vintage Canada

All photographs from Ang Lee’s film Life of Pi are the property of Fox 2000 Pictures.

Pi’s Three Wise Men illustration, Orange Juice Floating on Bananas, and Pi’s Mother Floating on Bananas by Tomislav Torjanac

The Other Blind Man slide by Giant Thinkwell, Inc using a photo by A Guy Taking Pictures

Life of Pi-Struggle illustration by Laura Bifano

Animals from Life of Pi illustration by Sam/Isolated-Scetch

Animals as People illustration by Hyuthefish

Communion illustration by unknown; posted by Alex Steward

Communion/Cannibalism meme by unknown; image taken from OurCatholicPrayers.com

Krishna Shows Yasoda Vishvarupa by the Hare Krishna Society

Pi’s Three Religions illustration by gilesm

Internet sources for all the above images can by found by clicking on the image.

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Posted in Canada, Immigration and Refugees, Media, Popular Culture, Psychology, Religion | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Why do the Cylons Hate Humanity (and Vancouver)? Spoiler Alert!

“I’m a machine. I can know much more. I can experience so much more. But I’m trapped in this absurd body. And why? Because my five creators thought that God wanted it that way.” –John Cavil, Cylon Model #1.

Listen! I can’t stop thinking about cylons.

evolution-of-a-cylon-battlestar-galactica-t-shirt-bsg-90ee8

They haunt me. They haunt me like they haunt Gaius Baltar (James Callis).

NOTE: I wish to confess that I hold no copyright over any of the images I have borrowed for this post and the videos and websites I link to are all posted and created by others. I borrow and use them through fair dealing and fair use as convenient illustrations for my cultural criticism. The sources for most of the images are linked to and can be found by clicking on the image. All YouTube clips are embedded links and do not originate from this post. The copyright for all images from the 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica belong to David Eick Productions, R&D TV, and the SyFy Channel.

Now first, please allow me to pay tribute to the CRTC (the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission), before getting down to the real business at hand, which is religion and psychology in Battlestar Galactica. Please allow me first to fulfil my moral obligation to produce Canadian content as I symbolically embrace at least part of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s mandate: to represent Canada to Canadians. If you care nothing for the Canadian connection, scroll down to the next titled section.

The BG Canadian Connection–Yes, this post on religion and psychology in popular television is about a well-known U.S. program. However, while technically an American production, Battlestar Galactica has a strong Canadian connection. To begin with, in the original 1970s series Bill Adama was played by Canadian actor Lorne Green (who, by the way, founded the Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto, was once known as “The Voice of Canada,” and wrote the 1951 encyclopedia entry “Television Starts in Canada” reproduced on my Pop Culture and Canadiana Encyclopedia topic pages)–but even the 21st century Battlestar Galactica reboot, which is my focus here, has deep Canadian roots: it was mostly filmed in Vancouver, B.C. and the surrounding mountainous region…

Vancouver in BG  BG-Baltar's Home

…and it hosts numerous Canadian actors, mostly playing humanoid cylons:

BG-aaron_doral BG-photo_of_tricia_helfer BG-grace_park LeobenBG-Kate Vernon BG-Michael Hogan BG-rekha_sharma and Aaron Douglas

Having said that, one of my favourite Canadian actors in the show (besides Callum Keith Rennie, whose disturbing character is another post) is Donnelly Rhodes. He doesn’t play a cylon, but a chain smoking doctor.

BG-Smoking DoctorThose familiar with Canadian television might remember him from both Danger Bay and Da Vinci’s Inquest.

Of course Da Vinci’s Inquest is by far the superior show (one of Canada’s very best) but Danger Bay?… well… what can I say?

Just click on Donnelly’s head in the Danger Bay pic below.

Danger Bay_v1Anyway, the point I’m trying to make in this long and pointless digression from my main topic is that even though Battlestar Galactica doesn’t count as Canadian content according to the CRTC’s mandate or point system, it counts as Canadian content in my heart and thus it counts as Canadian content on my Blog. [Why am I concerned about this, you ask? Because I am a Canadian shamed by my own PhD Qualifying Exam on the political economy of Canadian broadcasting into feeling deep and profound guilt (the Fraser Institute be damned for their lack of support) for watching and talking about so much damn American entertainment. I like to know that my friends in the film and television industry can still get work without having to always leave home.]

But, in fact, this post is about religion and psychology in popular culture. It is, in fact, about religion and psychology in space.

Religion and Psychology in Battlestar Galactica (Spoiler Alert)

It’s true, there aren’t a lot of psychologists, psychiatrists or psychoanalysts running around on the Galactica or in the rest of the Colonial Fleet (at least not any that are shown or are of any importance), whereas there is definitely an awful lot of religion permeating the story and a fair number of religious figures running around to boot.

battlestar-religion 300px-TheFinalFive

Battlestar-Gallactica-Supernovagaius-baltar BattlestarGalactica_--_3x17_-_Maelstrom

Nevertheless, there is a considerable amount of psychology in the show, even referenced as such. For example, there is a 4th Season episode called “No Exit” that builds on an earlier second season episode called “Lay Down Your Burdens.” They link psychology and religion together quite nicely–and both episodes do so in part through the psycho-religious practice of confession, a practice I’m particularly interested in (See multiple definitions of confession on three of my encyclopedia topic pages: [Religion Entries] [Psychology Entries] [Pop Culture Entries]). Additionally, these episodes link religion and psychology together through the appearance of psychoanalysis, itself a confessional practice.

As it happens, “No Exit” also has the distinction of explaining (of confessing) why the cylons hate humanity so much that they would destroyed Dr. Baltar’s beautiful home on the West coast of British Columbia (I mean Caprica).

Baltarbomb2But perhaps I digress.

In “Lay Down Your Burdens,” Chief Tyrol (Aaron Dougles), unaware that he is a cylon but worried that he might be, seeks religious council from Brother Cavil (Dean Stockwell), who is also a cylon. Although the audience at this point is unaware that either he or Cavil are cylons, Cavil knows that they both are. The interesting thing about this scene from a religion and psychology point of view, however, is that the religious counsel Tyrol receives targets his psyche rather than his soul.

Tyrol begins the session by confessing, “I never really believed in psych therapy. My father was a priest,” which is why he requested a priest rather than a psychologist or psychotherapist for his counselling. Yet, the analysis Cavil provides him is thoroughly psychological; in fact, its damn near psychoanalytic (minus the couch).

Screenshot_from_2014-11-20_14_21_22_v1

Now, of course, I am one who believes that religion and psychology are far more interconnected than most would like to admit (remember, “psyche” literally means soul according to many defintions-See again my transcribed encycopedia entries), but for analytic purposes, let us assume that the two practices are distinct. After denying the power of prayer and asserting that humans are on their own in this world, Cavil interprets Tyrol’s recurring dream of jumping to his death as a secret, shall we say, unconscious manifestation of his desire to kill himself because he thinks he is a cylon. Uncharacteristic of psychoanalytic analysis, Cavil does not take his assessment much further than that, but the fact remains, his diagnosis concerns Tyrol’s hidden psychological fears rather then his sin or salvation.

Of course, it is true, (a) in the middle of his diagnosis he reminds the Chief that he, Cavil, is not a therapist, (b) he still references Tyrol’s soul in his analysis, saying “That’s the thought that’s torturing your dreams and crippling your soul: I’m a cylon… and I deserve to die,” and (c) he ends the session by reminding Tyrol that, “The gods lift up those who lift each other;” but at its core, Cavil’s assessment of Tyrol’s problem is psychological rather than religious.

You think you're a cylon  How do you Know I'm Human

Now fast forward two seasons and everyone knows that both Tyrol and Cavil are cylons but we don’t quite know how it all fits together yet.

“No Exit” is the episode that explains that. The episode begins with Ellen Tigh (Kate Vernon) waking up to discover (waking up to remember) that she is also a cylon, one of the fabulous Final Five.

Cylon Helps up EllenThe rest of the Five include Chief Tyrol, Tory Foster (Rekha Sharma), Sam Anders (Michael Trucco), and Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan).

“No Exit” is where we learn that Ellen and her five compatriots are actually cylons from Earth–indeed, the 13th Tribe of Kobol (as told in scripture) that left the colonies to travel to Earth, were all cylons. It was their descendents, these five Earth cylons hidden for so long in the human fleet, hidden even to themselves, who created the seven humanoid cylon models that orchestrated the nuclear holocaust which nearly destroyed humanity in episode one of the series (minus one extra cylon not involved in that destruction). Ironically, however, the Final Five created the humanoid models as a promise to the centurion cylons after convincing them to end their first war with the humans nearly 40 years earlier.

The problem is, the first humanoid cylon they created, Cavil, murdered all five of his creators, blocked their memories when they downloaded into new bodies, implanted them with new human memories, and then sent them to live in the colonies among the humans so they could have a first row seat to the holocaust he was orchestrating.

Cavil_EllenIn the meantime, Cavil reprogrammed his brother and sister models to have no memory of who their creators were or where they had gone. He then manipulated them into helping him carry out his attack. But why did Cavil do this? He is just an evil, angry robot? He certainly looks like one.

Bitter Angry CavilBitter Angry CavilBitter Angry Cavil

He claims, of course, that he hates the humans because they enslaved his centurion ancestors and thus need to be punished for their crimes.

cylonheaddark_v12As for his five creators, Cavil believed they needed to be taught a lesson about how depraved the humans really are and thought that living among them would show them just that. Or, at least, that’s what he says. The problem is, this explanation falls short. First, Cavil practically enslaves the centurions himself. He certainly deprives them of free will, even predicting catastrophe when his brothers and sisters give them back their freedom.

bsg03-raider24aAnd when the cylon raiders recognize cylon Sam in the human fleet and refuse to attack, Cavil gives them all our favourite kind of psychiatric punishment, good old fashioned lobotomies. Battlestar.Galactica-sam

So it seems hard to believe that Cavil is really concerned with either centurion or raider slavery. Furthermore, not only does his plan to teach his creators about human depravity fail, it doesn’t appear that he ever really believed it would succeed. Indeed, his behaviour towards his creators after the genocide reveals only his own desire to continue punishing them, torturing them in fact, rather than teaching them any valuable lessons. Ellen herself points this out:

        Ellen: “You’re a sadist. Why not just kill us and be done with it?
                  Why send us to live among the humans?”
        John: “I wanted you to see what they’re like up close and personal.
                   So I gave you all grandstand seats to a holocaust.”
        Ellen: “But we didn’t die. And then you decided that we hadn’t suffered
                  enough. So you picked me up, put me on a transport, took Galen’s
                  confession, played resistance fighter with Sam, tortured Saul,
                  but didn’t kill him. You had a dozen chances.

Of course, we already know about Tyrol’s confession, for which Cavil’s therapy amounted to little more than mockery, but his lesson for Saul was different: he simply gauged out his eye.

Cavil tortures Saul

Now, to be fair, in one of the Battlestar Galactica movies, The Plan, which covers the first half of the series from the cylon point of view, both Cavil units that appear in that story (because Cavil is one model but more than one unit) articulate their desire for the five creators to learn the true nature of humanity even before the nuclear attack, but it seems unlikely they really believe that. Indeed, while conversing with Ellen in “No Exit,” Cavil admits (he confesses), “I’ve often wondered what changes the mortal experience would have on you. I never seriously considered the answer would be virtually none.” The clear implication of that statement is that he did not know what his creators would learn from their human experiences, even if he might have hoped they would learn of human depravity. In other words, he was quite prepared for them to learn something other than his “lesson,” which implies his lesson was not really the point.

But what does all this have to do with psychology? Everything, in fact.

To begin with, on top of all the confessions (which are always already as pychological as they are religious), on top of the physical torture, Cavil engages in the psychological torture of his fellow cylons (all of them, really). He fracks with their mental programming, sadistically mocking their “human” consciousness as he twists their minds upside down, inside out, and into a finely tied knot. But beyond that, he reveals himself to be a machine with its own peculiar psychology. Ellen, of course, is correct. Cavil is a sadist, but there is also a certain kind of psychological denial operating in the Cavil model, which is somewhat ironic given Cavil is one of the few characters in the show to directly reference human psychological concepts and categories while turning religious counselling into a travesty of psychoanalytic therapy. One would think, especially as a machine who appears to understand psychology, that he might recognize denial in his own thought processes.

But, even though Cavil is able to say such things as, “I’m not a therapist” (even as he offers therapy) and “it appears you still stick to delusional thinking instead of accepting the reality of your life for what it is. Humans have a word for that, Ellen. Schizophrenia,” in the movie The Plan Cavil reveals himself to be both psychologically split and largely blind (i.e. unconscious) to the nature of his own split mind. The division in the Cavil model is made most apparent in the division between the units. In The Plan, the Cavil unit on Galactica becomes increasingly bitter and hateful towards humanity, even killing a child he sarcastically calls “friend;” but the Cavil unit hiding with the rebel humans on Caprica (playing resistance fighter with Sam) allows himself to be won over by Sam’s love for the humans. To rationalize his sudden change of heart, that Cavil skirts directly with psychoanalysis (ironically, given that rationalization is a psychoanalytic defense mechanism) by suggesting that their model’s desire to punish the five creators was rooted in jealousy of their parents’ love for the humans and of their model’s secret desire to be loved by their parents more than the humans. However, the Cavil unit from Galactica dismisses that analysis as idiotic, partly through a facial expression of disgust and partly by promising to box his brother unit (take him off line), not out of fear of the truth but out of pure contempt for stupidity, as soon as they both download back to the cylon resurrection ship.

Although the Galactica Cavil is himself in denial of his true motivations for forcing his creators to live with the humans, he is right to dismiss the Caprica Cavil’s interpretation. It suggests Oedipal desire. While there is plenty of cylon incest to go around in Battlestar Galactica, including multiple examples of Cavil sleeping with both his mother and his sisters, it would be (believe it or not) a mistake to read the Oedipus Complex into this behavior. Absolutely, the Oedipus Complex is written directly into Cavil’s relationship with his five parents, Ellen and Saul in particular. Cavil sleeps with his mother and, although he does not kill his father, he gauges out his father’s eye, a clear reference to Oedipus poking out his own eyes in Oedipus Rex. There is also the suggestion that Cavil killed one of his siblings because he was jealous that sibling received to much attention from Ellen. I recognize all of this and also recognize that some of the arguments I will make below dismissing Oedipal desire here can be counteracted through the psychoanalytic defence mechanisms, displacement in particular. Nevertheless, I maintain that it is simply too easy to read the Oedipus complex into this aspect of Battlestar Galactica. Not only is it too easy, it is too conscious. There is a psychoanalytic logic at play here, but not an Oedipal one. Cavil does not sleep with Ellen, Boomer (Grace Park) and one of the Six models because of any unconscious desire to be loved by his creators. He sleeps with them, openly and consciously, because it is the depraved thing to do–because it manifestly mocks human sexuality.

Cavil kisses Boomer Cavil and naked ellen prostitute-sixThe truth is, Cavil doesn’t care about centurion slavery, teaching his creators a valuable life lesson, or finding comfort in the bosom of his mother. The real reason Cavil hates the humans (and let’s be clear–it’s Cavil who hates the humans, not the rest of the cylons) is because he hates that he himself was made in the image of humanity–that is, he hates his own body (which is psychanalytic in and of itself, but not in any necessarily oedipal way):

If you are versed in psychoanalysis, especially if you are a Lacanian, please give me some slack here. This is just a blog and I’m using this post to work through my thoughts, so they are just preliminary. I know there are psychoanalytic nuances I’m not articulating here, and I’m not giving enough allowance to projection and displacement. Forgive me and bear with me.

While Cavil knows that he hates his body and confesses that he hates his body, he does not recognize that it is that hatred, i.e. his own self-loathing, that drives him both to destroy the humans and to punish his parents by forcing them to be human. Yes, we’re talking about a machine here, not a human; but we are talking about that which we think of as human because Cavil’s behaviour demonstrates quite clearly that the cylons are actually complex and contradictory psychological beings, motivated in part by impulses they do not consciously understand or are even capable of fully controlling. Of course Cavil claims to hate the humans because they enslaved the centurions–he needs to rationalize his hate through justice–but really Cavil hates the humans because he hates that he is the same as them, that they represent for him, and constantly remind him of his own inferiority. As it happens, it follows from this that he also holds the centurions in contempt, regardless of any claims otherwise, because he is obviously insanely jealous of their clear physical superiority–a superiority he (I can’t believe I’m going to say this) castrates through lobotomy.

But really, what about all that cylon incest? Does that not actually DEMAND a more traditional Freudian analysis rooted in our old friend the Oedipus Complex? Do not Freudian family dynamics permeate the cylon consciousness, especially know that you admit castration? We hear your objections about Oedipus specifically, but we cultural theorists who refuse to acknowledge the fall from grace of psychoanalysis in the actual disciplines of psychiatry and psychology, we who ignore its continued abuse in the Christian ex-gay movement claiming it’s different for us because its rooted in Lacan; we must insist, in literature every story is about the Oedipus Complex, especially those that are as obviously about it as this.

No. My distaste for the Oedipus Complex is palpable, I admit, but I feel I must repeat this: Cavil’s incest is not a manifestation of oedipal desire, in spite of one of the Cavils explaining his hatred of humanity as an unconscious longing for the parental love his model is jealous was bestowed upon the humans instead. On the contrary, Cavil’s incest is an open, conscious, deliberate mocking of the human body he hates so much. And we cannot forget that he does not hate his body out of shame or disgust or sexual guilt or fear of castration; he hates it because it is weak, because it is soft (frak me!), because it is limiting, because it is not made of steal (it is not hard) or capable of perceiving so much more of the universe–if there is castration here (it’s getting increasingly difficult to deny the castration), he was castrated before he was even born, which is a different psychology than what Freud describes. (But is he castrated, or is he just impotent? Because that too is a different psychology.) Regardless, however, the more important point is that remarkably little of this is unconscious. Cavil hates his body clearly and manifestly even as he deceives himself into believing his hatred of the humans is about slavery and teaching valuable life lessons to his parents. Denial is always unconscious to some degree, but how often are we surprised to see denial operating so close to conscious thought?

Of course it would still be easy to say that really, unconsciously, he wants to sleep with his mother because, hey look, he really is sleeping with his mother, but wait… that’s not very unconscious–he’s actually doing it. No. That is nothing more than mockery. He hates the human body because it cannot do what he wants it to do. He hates the human body because his body has human emotions such as fear programmed right into the electrical grid of his brain. He hates the human body because even at the moment of his “we’re about to get thrown out an airlock” death (even if it is not his final death) he succumbs to the comfort of touch. He holds hands with his brother in preparation for resurrection. (Gods damnit! The phallic imagery is overwhelming my argument!)

Cavils hold hands

What an ugly picture. Anyway, to throw a bone to Lacan, he hates the human body because it lacks; but it is not really the Lacanian lack. It is not the lack of castration (it is the lack of impotence). It is a real functional lack rather than a symbolic lack. Cavil lacks the power of the machine he wishes he could be. And that is why he gauges out his father’s eye.

Remember this: when Oedipus discovered that he unknowingly killed his father and married his mother, he gauged out his own eyes. Cavil, however, kills all his fathers and his mothers, orchestrates all their resurrections, and then gauges out only one of only one of his fathers’s eyes–only one of only one. That is a mockery of Oedipus Rex and a flagrant distortion of the psychology Freud claims it represents. Oedipus could not bear to see what he had done; Cavil can not only bear it, he celebrates it, and then he carves out his father’s eye as testimony (as a confession of faith) to the very uselessness of the eyes he uses to see his own depravity. An eye for a penis? Remember this: he punishes his mothers as well because they are just as much to blame for his castration as are his fathers. They are just as much his creators. There is no gender binary here; there is also no family dynamic here. There is only unidirectional hate, that is to say, there is only hate directed at everything that looks and feels human. Projection and displacement don’t cut it here because the apparently displaced Oedipal dynamic is far too conscious.

This is also conscious, but it’s meant to be conscious: Look, dear father, because you and mother, and father, mother, and father, gave me these ridiculous gelatinous orbs through which to see the majesty of the universe in which I live, because you made me impotent (chemically castrated me?) before I was even born to be just as impotent as you already are, I will punish you by removing one of your ridiculous gelatinous orbs and castrate you just a little bit more than you already are. Now do you see how useless these eyes are? Frak you!

Ah, you say, so he did want to teach his parents a lesson. Yes, but not the lesson he claims. This is not about the depravity of humanity and all the sins that humanity committed; it is about the weakness of humanity and all the experiences that they are denied because they were created in the image of… well, of God. And in this pop culture story, that point makes perfect narrative sense, because in Battlestar Galactica, God exists.

“I’m a machine. I can know much more. I can experience so much more. But I’m trapped in this absurd body. And why? Because my five creators thought that God wanted it that way.”

The irony is that the other cylons, with their human psychologies, love their bodies and believe in the one true God. Indeed, belief in the one true God comes directly from the enslaved centurions, regardless of their steel bodies (well… as we know from the prequel Caprica, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but we shan’t get into that now). But Cavil mocks that belief, he despises that belief, he associates that belief with weakness, just as he mocks and despises psychology and associates that with weakness as well. Psychology itself is impotent; it is as impotent as religion and Cavil wants neither, perhaps because he recognizes that they are two sides of the same coin–but either way, religion and psychology, like his body, are both failing and fragile, at least to his gelatinous orbs, and neither are worthy of his respect. Thus it should come as no surprise that his final solution is to destroy his own body and psyche by blowing the electrical grid that contains and limits his thoughts and hatred right to Kingdom Come.

cavil-bsg

In other words, Cavil hates humanity because he hates himself and God. Vancouver just got in the way.

(Why does this matter? Because the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves (and about the machines that are really us) do actually say something about who we are. Just go ask your highschool English teacher.)

Additional Information Re: Borrowed Images

The Danger Bay image is a screenshot from the YouTube video of the show’s opening credits. Copyright belongs to the CBC and the Disney Channel.

The original cylon image is a modified version of an image owned by Universal Studies. I modified the image myself.

The few images that are not linked to internet sources were taken from sources that have since been removed from the net. In each case the copyright for the image remains with David Eick Productions, R&D TV, and the SyFy Channel, as is the case for all other images taken from the 2004 Battlestar Galactica reboot.

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Can You Trust a Government that Hides Numerous Policy Changes in Giant Unrelated Bills they Hope Nobody Reads?

The Conservative government of Canada (sometimes called the Harper government) is up to its old tricks, hiding important policy changes in giant omnibus budget bills in the hopes that no one will notice. As outlined here, this time the hidden policy is yet another attempt to make life for refugees in Canada as difficult as possible. Buried deep in Bill C-43 is a provision designed to encourage the provinces to cut off social assistance for vulnerable newcomers to Canada, many of whom have been traumatized by violence, war and oppression, many of whom are just trying to start a new life, often having arrived in Canada with little beyond the clothes on their backs.

refugee_health_social_assitance_canadaI’m going to make this post short, so as to keep my anger in check, but whether you’re welcoming to refugees or not, at least ask yourself this: can you trust a government that hides half of what it wants to do in giant budget bills precisely because they want as few people as possible aware of their plans? The Conservatives do this all the time, one of the worst examples being Bill C-38 from two years ago.

If the Conservatives truly believe that their plans represent good government policy that the majority of Canadians would support, why can’t they be open and honest about their intentions?

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If Wilfred is just a dog, does that mean Ryan killed him? (Spoiler Alert)

The 4-season American version of the darkly comedic show Wilfred has now been over for a couple of months. For those of you unfamiliar and unconcerned about having major plot points given away, Wilfred is an FX show about a depressed man named Ryan Newman (Elijah Wood) who discovers after a failed suicide attempt that he perceives his neighbour’s dog to be a full grown, foul-mouthed, pot smoking, Matt Damon-loving man in a dog suit (Jason Gann).
A Dog and his Hobbit

NOTE: I wish to confess that I hold no copyright over any of the images I have borrowed for this post and the videos and websites I link to are all posted and created by others. I borrow and use them through fair dealing as convenient illustrations for my cultural criticism.

Anyway, as the show progresses, it becomes clear that Ryan is either one of only a chosen few who can see Wilfred for what he really is or Ryan is suffering from a severe mental illness, straight from the DSM, perhaps schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder. That is, either Ryan is a chosen, mystical seer and Wilfred is a dog-god sent to make him happy or Ryan is nuts and Wilfred is just a dog–a very excitable dog. In any case, the show brilliantly oscillates between those options, sometimes throwing in a few more just to keep us on our toes:

Is Wilfred an alien?
Wilfred-spaceship

Is Ryan an unwilling participant in a twisted psychological experiment?
Wilfred psychological experiment

Is Wilfred just a guy in a dog suit fracking with Ryan’s mind?
Wilfred - Jason Gann yells at Elijah

More often than not, though, regardless of who or what Wilfred is or what kind of mental state Ryan is in, the two are just friends: they hang out, they dance, they go on adventures, they play Clue, they host dinner parties, they bicker, argue, fight, and insult each other, they make anti-cat propaganda movies, and they smoke a lot of dope, usually in Ryan’s basement, which may not even exist.
Wilfred-baked_with_a_dog_in_a_basement_that_doesn_

Although there are some weak episodes, overall the show is exceptionally well done: it is well written, well acted, and it is often very funny, sometimes very sad and occasionally even frightening as thunder—precisely because of how it oscillates between mysticism and psychosis (and also because of superb and very creepy guest appearances by Robin Williams and Dwight Yoakum).

Eventually the show does provide us with an answer; and at first, I must admit, I was very disappointed with that answer and refused to believe it. Ryan is mentally ill, Wilfred was just a dog, and to add insult to injury, Wilfred got cancer and died, perhaps because of how much pot Ryan smoked in his presence (although I’m going to pretend that’s not the case).

I'm sad, Wilfred. I'm really sad.

I’m sad, Wilfred. I’m really sad.

But there was one aspect of this ending that I missed at first, which I think is probably the most interesting part of the whole show. Once Ryan realizes he is mentally ill and Wilfred is just a dog, after a period of distress and denial, Ryan decides he doesn’t care. Wilfred made him happy and Wilfred still makes him happy.
Wilfred and Ryan Happy

Hell, even when Ryan was sad (coming down from a bad ayahuasca trip), Wilfred was always there to comfort him.
I'm sad Wilfred, I'm really sad

In the end, Ryan chooses to remain mentally ill because he likes it that way. More than that, the possibility that his mental illness is still in some sense connected to a profound form of spirituality remains an option, even if it appears diminished. That is what makes this show so interesting and that is why I want to focus a considerable amount of attention on its narrative in my academic exploration of the relationship between spirituality and psychology in popular culture today.

The reality that that which we in the West perceive as mental illness and schizophrenia is often perceived as a form of spirituality in other cultures should not be too easily dismissed. See, for example, Shamans Among Us by Joseph Polimeni. Some have even suggested that “witchdoctors” themselves are something akin to psychiatrists. See Witchdoctors and Psychiatrists by E. Fuller Torrey (or see The Psychological Channel’s blog post on the book here). In any case, and back to Wilfred, I take pop culture narrative seriously—it is more than just entertainment and representation—and when a well made popular narrative like Wilfred addresses the relationship between mental illness and spirituality with as much depth as this show does, I take that very seriously indeed… even if I sometimes (frequently) laugh in the process.

But if Wilfred is just a dog, does that mean Ryan killed him? Is not Ryan at least partly responsible for Wilfred’s lung cancer? Whatever the answer to those questions may be, the truth is, Wilfred is NOT just a dog.
wilfred_danceWilfred another Dancing picture

Post Script: Just to make sure I’m not misunderstood on one key point, it is not my intention to suggest, or to say that Wilfred suggests, that people who suffer from mental illness should just be allowed to continue suffering because it will make them happy. I’m well aware of how much pain and suffering mental illnesses cause to millions of people everyday. My point is this (and I believe Wilfred depicts this in a very powerful way): some of that which we call mental illness was not always considered so and is still not always considered so in all places. If behaving, thinking and perceiving differently causes no harm in and of itself and does in fact make the person who behaves, thinks and perceives in that way happy, then what is the problem? Of course there is one problem, and once again Wilfred depicts this: if the “powers that be” say something is a mental illness even if it is not, then the person who behaves, thinks and perceives in that way will know that they are different in a way that is not acceptable and that will cause pain and suffering. But, and this is key, in that case that problem does not arise from the so-called mental illness itself. Again, just to be clear, I am not trying to generalize my point to all conditions that we call mental illness. I am not even trying to generalize my point to all conditions that we call schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder.

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Another New Book Claims Jesus was Married

I’m not entirely sure why so many people get so upset whenever somebody suggests that Jesus may not have been celibate (as if celibacy is really supposed to be the core practice of Christianity)… I mean, of course I understand why people get upset, but at the same time, I don’t understand. Know what I mean?

Anyway, the point of this short post is merely to say that when I get the time I will definitely check out the new book by Canadian-Israeli filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici and York University Prof Barrie Wilson. Here’s the Globe and Mail review of the book.

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For a Multicultural Country, Canada is not Always Very Welcoming

Overall, if we can accept the conclusions of this CBC/Research House Survey, the majority of Canadians support immigration and multiculturalism, which is good; however, there is still a significant portion of the Canadian populace, which varies from region to region and question to question, that does not appear to support either Canada’s multicultural policy or continued immigration. I say it varies from question to question because, not surprisingly, the percentage of Canadians who respond negatively to questions of immigration changes depending on what the question is or how it is phrased. There’s some hope in that, because it means some negative attitudes towards immigrants and refugees may be situational, which suggests there is room for positive attitudes to increase. Of course, one wouldn’t think there is much room for a furthering of positive attitudes based on some of the horrendously racist and offensive comments posted by anonymous readers below the linked article, but thankfully there is no evidence Canadian (or any other country’s) newspaper comment board posts even come close to accurately representing a broad sample of public opinion.

Having said all that, the policies and attitudes of our current Conservative government are far from welcoming: Ottawa Ignores Rule of Law in Refugee Health Care. Although I am a born-in-Canada-citizen, I have personal experience with the refugee system through my volunteer work and friendships with a number of refugees. In fact, I have attended two Refugee Board hearings (a matter on which I will refrain from commenting on any further at this point), I have sat in on several meetings between a refugee friend and his appeal lawyer, and I have helped that same refugee friend navigate losing his federal health care after his claim was unjustly denied. In other words, I know from experience that the refugee system in this country is a horrendous, human rights violating mess, partly as a result of hiring practices and policy changes implemented by the current Conservative government but also due to systemic problems that extend back decades.

If the majority of Canadians do indeed generally support multiculturalism and increased immigration, as the above survey suggests, I think they would be horrified to learn just how inhospitable our current immigration and refugee system is. It is ironic that Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicly identifies as a practicing Christian, as do many members of his government. One of the primary religious practices that is supposed to be privileged in the Judeo-Christian tradition is radical hospitality. Such radical hospitality is written right into the long version of the Ten Commandments as written in Deuteronomy 5:4-20. The passage, “And remember that thou wast a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day” refers back to what was at the time a radical command: that the sabbath applies to all, including the “stranger that is within thy gates.” Forgive the Bible quoting here, as I don’t mean to come across as a “thumper”; but I am a scholar of religion and I’m simply trying to point out the hypocrisy of Canada’s political leadership on immigration and refugee policy given said leadership’s professed religious views.

As a related aside, I might also point out that the “sin of Sodom” is not homosexuality; it’s inhospitality. Just saying.

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A Political Poll in Canada Unexpectedly Provides Some Interesting Media, Religion and Psychology Data

While my primary academic interests revolve around media, religion and psychology I have always been a political junkie… or at least since I was a teenager. Being Canadian, I follow Canadian politics very closely and, I must admit, I am obsessed with polls. I visit these two sites nearly every morning to check for updates:

1. Opinion polling for the 42nd Canadian federal election

2. ThreeHundredEight.com

Setting aside for a moment an alarming trend in multiple Canadian polls, most of which see the federal Conservatives slowly regaining some popularity (be afraid, Canada, be very, very afraid–they still could win the next election, especially if they call it early), there was some interesting and unusual data concerning Canadian media in the latest Abacus poll, but it also addresses Canadian fears surrounding “radical Islamist terrorism” versus “deranged individual attackers”: Abacus-Release-November-5_Vote_Response.

To summarize, of the poll’s 1,850 respondents, opinion is divided between 51% who think the recent attacks in Ottawa and Montreal “were caused by the growing conflict with radical Islamic influences in the Middle East” and 49% who think they “were more about two deranged individual attackers than a broader conflict.” 47% say the “attacks prove Canada must take a harder line in the fight against terror in the Middle East”, while 53% said “the attacks don’t affect my view of what we should do in the fight against terror in the Middle East.” 56% believe that “Canada faces a growing risk of radical Islamist terrorism in Canada” while 44% adopt a more tentative view “It’s not yet clear whether the risk of radical Islamist terrorism in Canada is growing”.

But then this data was added: “Finally, as events unfolded, many people watched TV news coverage: 28% said they mostly watched CBC/Radio Canada, followed by CTV (22%), Global (14%) and TVA (11% or 42% in Quebec). 5% watched CNN. Large majorities said they thought the broadcasts they watched did a good job providing coverage, with the strongest positives for the CBC.” More media data was provided a little earlier in the press release: “In terms of how people first heard of this attack, TV was the first source for 34% of the population, radio was cited by 15%, while 10% said they heard about it directly from another individual, and 4% got a telephone call from someone. The rapidly growing role of digital communications is evident in that 18% said the Internet was their first source, another 14% said social media, and 5% said an email or text message.”

At this point I will refrain from commenting too much on this data. I present it here “for your information”–and for my information as well. But it is interesting data and I will at least say this: if accurate, it paints a picture that shows the federal Conservatives may very well be able to create a wedge issue rooted in religious fear and ride that fear to another election victory, especially if they call an early election. We should be worried about that. But on an almost completely different topic, it also paints a picture of a country that still watches a lot of TV (in spite of the growth of digital communications), still watches mostly Canadian news when they do, and still trusts Canadian public broadcasting to a remarkably high degree. I wonder how many Canadians really understand the threat the Conservative party represents to public broadcasting? “Well, they’ve been in power for almost ten years and the CBC is still here, so….” Good point, except it’s not. The CBC is in a much more precarious position today then it was 10 years ago, and while the Liberals haven’t been particularly friendly to the CBC since at least the 1970s, the Conserveratives actually do want to see the CBC fail. Furthermore, the Conservatives like to kill things slowly, bit by bit, drip by drip, budget by budget. Give them another four years, and you will see four more years of incremental “death by a thousand paper cuts” inflicted on the CBC. There’s only so much more they can take.

Wait, I thought I wasn’t going to comment on this data? I guess I am; but it’s interesting that I’m focusing on the media data in the poll rather than the religious and the psychological, i.e. the Islamist extremist threat versus the deranged crazy person threat. I should be honest. I don’t yet know what to say about the near 50/50 divide in perceptions about “radical Islam” verses “deranged individual attackers.” My fear is that too many people believe “radical Islam” represents all of Islam and that “deranged individual” equals mental illness in general. But I need to think this through a little more; and I cannot just rely on one poll to draw general conclusions. In other words, my specific academic interests are represented in this poll, but I don’t quite know what to do with them yet. It’s much more safe to talk about the CBC.

But then there’s also the methodology problem–this poll is NOT a random sample of the Canadian population. It’s an opt-in online poll in which a random sample was taken of a recruited online panel. But that’s a growing problem amongst pollsters these days, as so many turn to the internet to conduct their surveys using opt-in panels. Perhaps I’ll post on that problem at another time. I’ve already said much more than I intended here as I really just wanted to draw attention to the raw data, which I myself don’t know what to do with yet.

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