Monday, September 19, 2011

Legal relativism

Here in Israel, serious traffic accidents often receive extensive media coverage, particularly if they are hit-and-run accidents. Last Friday morning, a woman was killed by a car that had been reported as driving dangerously just minutes earlier. The car's driver and passenger offered no assistance to the victim, did not report the accident, returned home, and fled the country. They returned to France, from where they had recently moved to Israel, with their families. There is no extradition treaty between Israel and France, and people accused of a crime in one country can only be extradited to the other by special dispensation. There is now some public pressure in Israel for this to be done in this case. It is also possible that the driver could be tried in France under French law, even though the crime was committed abroad.

When asked why he had left the country, the driver explained that in Israel he would be sentenced to 20 years in prison, while in France the sentence would be significantly lower. I have tried to find details about the penalties for driving offences in France, and it appears that causing death by dangerous driving would be punishable by a minimum of five years imprisonment, while hit-and-run would add another two years imprisonment. From what I have read, the 20 year sentence in Israel is the maximum penalty for killing someone in a hit-and-run accident. The law cannot treat such cases as murder, but considers them more serious than negligent killing, which only receives a penalty of three years imprisonment. When a driver abandons a pedestrian, this is considered a serious offence, because in some cases, the victim's life could be saved by immediate intervention, and anyone ignoring the fate of an injured person is potentially contributing to their death.

This case made me wonder why there are such significant differences between the levels of punishment for identical crimes in different countries. It seems to me that the legal system of each society reflects, to some extent, the values and norms of that society. The legal system can also be used by legislators to modify the public's behaviour and perception of certain behaviours.

Does this mean that French legislators or French society consider driving dangerously, killing a pedestrian, driving off, and not reporting the accident a much less serious crime than Israeli legistlators or Israeli society do? I have no way of knowing. From what I know about Israeli law, the punishments are relatively severe as a deterrent. The percentage of fatal and serious traffic accidents here, relative to the population, or to the number of cars, or the length of the roads (three different ways of comparing accident rates) is higher than in many western countries, and continuous efforts are being made to improve safety and prevent accidents.

In an ideal world, I believe most countries would share similar values, at least regarding things like traffic accidents. If countries had more similar laws and punishments, perhaps there would be fewer cases of criminals fleeing justice in the country where the crime was committed in the hope of evading punishment, or at least serving a smaller sentence, in another country.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Exposure helps build immunity

Two unrelated recent news stories seem to me to be connected in a way. I find it interesting when I see this sort of connection, so I thought I would share my thoughts.

The first story is a report explaining what many people have suspected for a long time. The modern tendency to keep everything clean and sanitized may be partly responsible for an increase in certain diseases, such as asthma and auto-immune diseases. This was reported with headlines claiming that "some dirt may be good for you".

The explanation proposed is that our immune system requires some exposure to dirt and bacteria in order to develop its resistance. Living in an overly sanitized environment might cause the immune system to turn against the body's own cells, since it has not encountered enough foreign contaminants and learned to protect against them.

Many people now are extremely paranoid about exposure to anything that is not clean and "hygienic", but for most of the history of the species, and for most of the population of the world today, such circumstance are not available, and yet, these "dirty" conditions do not necessarily sentence people to a life of sickness, and many sufferers of some modern diseases seem to have developed them precisely because they live in such "clean" surroundings.

The second story concerns the ideas of modesty in Orthodox Judaism (and similar ideas exist in other religions). For a long time, Orthodox (haredi) men in Israel were exempt from military service because it was considered incompatible with their way of life. In recent times, efforts have been made to integrate them into the army, and to find ways to allow them to maintain their religious practices. One of the habits Orthodox Jews consider essential is modesty. They try to avoid contact between the genders, and one of the rules is that men are not supposed to hear women sing. At a ceremony in a military base, a few Orthodox soldiers walked out when female singers appeared. They were dismissed from the officer course they were attending, and the case has sparked controversy among the Israeli population.

On the one hand, proponents of religious freedom argue that people should not be required to do anything that goes against their religious principles. On the other hand, many people find it offensive that women should be treated as a threat to men's "purity".

It seems to me that the whole attitude of the fear in some religions that men will be unable to resist the charms of women if they see an "immodestly" dressed woman or hear her singing voice, therefore enforcing a sort of "hygiene" to prevent exposure to such risks, suffers from the same faulty logic as the thinking of the extreme cleanliness trend.

Men who grow up in a liberal society, exposed to "immodest" women, do not end up constantly thinking sexual thoughts, let along acting on them. They develop an immunity to the temptation, and learn to live normal lives in the presence of women. Of course there are some who act inappropriately, but this is also true within religious society. In some cases, the very lack of exposure among religious men can create the sort of hypersensitivity that I would consider unhealthy.

Since I believe that a healthy society involves giving freedom and equality to women, I find any attempts to restrict their behaviour counter-productive. I think that several religious attitudes toward women are blaming the victim by considering women inherently seductive, referring only to their physical aspect. These religions also seem to give men very little credit, considering them naturally incapable of controlling their urges. So these attempts at "modest" behaviour are demeaning to both genders, and leave them incapable of confident, authentic interaction with members of the opposite sex.

The lesson from these two stories seems to be that exposure increases immunity. To be healthy, people have to be exposed to the things they want to be capable of resisting. Avoiding exposure weakens and distorts the natural responses, and is an unhealthy impulse. I doubt many people with strong beliefs in cleanliness, whether literal or metaphorical, will change their opinions and embrace exposure to the very things they fear, but perhaps this is an argument people who favour exposure can use when explaining their position to such believers.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Three behaviours to avoid

Yesterday during a visit to the supermarket I encountered three types of behaviour people should avoid, within a few minutes of each other. Having these things happen in such proximity made me aware that many people don't realize the consequences of their actions, so I decided it was worth writing about, even if these seem like obvious things to avoid.

1. Sexual harassment: As I entered the supermarket, the security guard said, "With a smile like that, I won't even check your bag". I hadn't been aware I was smiling, and it was probably my normal polite expression. I felt very uncomfortable to have a stranger I'd never seen before engage in this sort of banter. Then, when I left the supermarket trying to avoid any further contact, he said, "Where's that smile, then?", and I reacted with a forced, self-defensive smile. The man seemed creepy to me. He was old, had a goatee and a long, greasy pony tail. I don't usually judge people by their appearance, but in this case his attitude confirmed the impression his appearance made. If I'd said something like "Don't talk to me like that", he would have become defensive, saying it was just some harmless fun. He would probably not understand, or care, that it made me feel uncomfortable and that for me that was an intrusion into my privacy. Some readers may be surprised that I could be upset by something so minor. Indeed, I have experienced more serious cases of sexual harassment in the past, and I know many women would accept this as natural. But the point is that such men frequently treat women they encounter as sources of entertainment rather than as people with feelings. So, if you are a man reading this and have engaged in this sort of "harmless fun", please think again.

2. Inconsiderate behaviour: I have seen this often, but yesterday there were so many shopping trolleys (= carts) in the supermarket car park (parking lot), and in one place there was a whole stack of them almost blocking the way so I had to drive carefully to avoid them. Many years ago, supermarkets introduced the lock mechanism on trolleys, where you put in a coin and then have to return the trolley after use to reclaim the coin. This was supposed to ensure that people put them back in the right place instead of leaving them all over the car park. What happened is that people now have coin-shaped pushers that they can use to unlock the trolleys, so they no longer have to worry about retrieving their coins, and the situation has reverted to the original, pre-lock state. People don't seem to have enough consideration for others to put their trolleys back, and this can even endanger drivers. Until another method is invented to ensure the return of trolleys to their place after use, I would like to call on everyone to be considerate and responsible, take a few more steps, and put the trolley away. And this is just one example of the sort of selfish, short-sided lack of consideration that is prevalent in society.

3. Absent-minded behaviour: Then, when I was driving out of the car park, I almost had a head-on collision with a car trying to turn into the car park exit, which was clearly marked with a no entry sign. Luckily, we were both driving very slowly, and my headlights were on. As soon as the driver noticed me, he realized his mistake and turned the other way. But this demonstrated to me that careless and absent-minded behaviour could potentially have dangerous outcomes. I am a very cautious driver, and when I enter an underground car park, I turn on the lights, take off my sunglasses, and look around carefully to make sure I am driving the right way. This is not the first time I have seen people driving the wrong way in this car park, so I am always alert for people doing the wrong thing there. So I would like to call on people to be more aware of their surroundings, especially when driving.

I often wish I lived in a world with better people in it. There is not much I can do to change the world, but perhaps readers of this post will become more aware of their actions and of the impact such things can have on others. If through my writing, or as a personal role model, I can help even a few people change their behaviour, that will be my contribution to the net sum of goodness in the world.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The stress of home improvement

At the moment, we are having building work done in our flat. This is very stressful, and I am trying to understand why the situation has such a strong emotional impact.

First, it was not exactly our choice to have this work done. We were asked to make these repairs by the neighbours downstairs. Rain water has been seeping into our external walls, trickling down, and causing dampness in their walls and ceilings in two places. To prevent this from happening this winter, we are having the balcony retiled, and part of the external wall of one room rebuilt. Having to do this work because our property is causing damage to the neighbours' flat is an uncomfortable situation. Obviously we have to do it, and we want to keep good relations with the neighbours. But it was not a decision we initiated, and if we had known the extent and cost of the work required, we might have been able to prepare for it better and felt more in control of the situation.

Second, I feel invaded and trapped. We have workers in the house several hours a day, making noise, making a mess, smoking, listening to their music, sometimes arguing. My home is an extension of myself, and I feel very uncomfortable with having other people here who are not our guests. Working from home is ideal for me, because usually my home is peaceful. I am now finding it hard to concentrate with the noise and the constant awareness that I might be interrupted. I can't just take my computer and work somewhere else, because I want to supervise the workers.

Third, we have two cats, and they are currently confined to the bedroom while the workers are here. They get very upset at the noise, and sometimes I have to spend part of the day in the bedroom with them just to reassure them. I don't know if it would have been better to put them into a cat pension/hotel, since they are very attached to us and hate travelling (we have moved home with them several times).

Finally, of course, there is the financial consideration. Because the damage was caused by rain water rather than burst pipes, the repairs are not covered by our insurance. This has forced us to take money out of a savings account. We always intended to use our savings for emergencies such as house repairs, but it is never a good feeling to have to large expenses, especially as we always have a large degree of uncertainty about our future financial security.

I have realized that the stress results from feeling helpless, invaded, trapped, unsure about the future, and from worrying about the cats. I know that my life is normally quite stress-free, and hope the work will be finished as soon as possible so we can all return to our normal routine, in an improved home.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Guy Gavriel Kay - Under Heaven

Guy Gavriel Kay, Under Heaven, Harper Voyager, 2010.

This is a story about living in interesting times, and of having greatness thrust upon you. The main character, Tai, spent two years living in isolation, working on a personal mission to bury the bones of soldiers on a remote battlefield. He is rewarded with an unexpected gift, two hundred and fifty horses. This forces him to return home to the capital and engage with a world that has changed during his absence.

Tai discovers that his brother has become adviser to the first minister, and his sister has been made a princess and sent as a bride beyond the northern border. We follow her adventures in the northern region, where Tai had previously served in the army. Tai becomes involved in palace politics, and everything changes.

The story is set in a society based on ancient China, though no knowledge of history is required. It is a fantasy, but the fantasy seems to exist only in two aspects of the story: the ghosts of the dead soldiers, and the shamanistic powers in the north.

This was an interesting story, partly because the main character seemed rather passive, having to react to circumstances beyond his control rather than asserting his will. At times, the story is a very personal examination of his inner thoughts, while at other times the author draws back from the action and describes how events are later understood or interpreted by historians and poets. The juxtaposition of a personal account and a wider view shows that objectivity is difficult to achieve, and the later presentation of events is no less subjective than any individual's perception of them at the time.

As always, I enjoy Kay's writing, with the vivid descriptions of people and places, the balance between the characters' personal motivations and the larger events that seem to control their fates, and the occasional insights into the minor characters' lives.

I recommend this book, and readers who are encountering Kay's work for the first time would do well to try his earlier novels, too.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Making challenges realistic

As regular readers will have noticed, my plan to write a blog post every day in August did not work very well. I managed to write on 13 out of 31 days, which is less than half. On the other hand, it is more than I have ever written in one month. Since my original target when I started the blog was to write 6-8 posts a month (which I sometimes achieve), I now think that 8-10 posts per month would be a more realistic target than writing every day.

Just as during the Camp NaNoWriMo challenge in July I did not manage to write every day, and had to make up my lost word count on other days, I found that trying to write every day was a bit demanding, especially as I had a busy workload during August.

My problem has always been that my work as a translator and editor takes up the same sort of creative verbal mental energy that my writing does, so at the end of a day's work, I find it difficult to spend even more time and energy crafting words and sentences, and often prefer to do something else. Since I don't intend to change my day job, I will have to find a way to combine my own writing ambitions with my paid work.

I often think of subjects for blog posts and then never get around to writing them. Now that I have my little netbook, it should be more convenient to write wherever I happen to be at the time. I have some books to review, and perhaps also some more controversial topics to discuss. I hope that with a more realistic expectation of how often I should write, I will be able to meet my new target and keep this blog interesting for my readers and myself.