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Multi-culturalism - John C. Kirk

Oct. 11th, 2006

12:55 am - Multi-culturalism

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Making a vaguely topical post, I've been aware of some recent controversy over two related incidents. Firstly, Jack Straw vs Muslim women wearing veils. Secondly, the armed policeman who didn't guard the embassy that he was initially assigned to. In both of these cases, I think that the way they've been reported seems to vary according to the agenda of the news organisation, so I'm reluctant to take sides without knowing the facts. Essentially, the question is whether the people concerned were asking a favour or insisting on a particular action.

Regarding the policeman, I think that it's fair enough if he wants to request a different assignment. Back when I did bar work in my undergrad days, it was fairly common for people to swap shifts around, e.g. if they had an unfinished essay that was due in, or if the shift clashed with someone's birthday. As long as everyone's happy, and the work gets done, I don't see any harm in it. In particular, if the policeman's senior officer approved the request then that seems like an endorsement that the request was reasonable, so any new policies should start at management level and then trickle down from there. On the other hand, if the policeman had said "I refuse to do it, and you can't make me, neener neener", and his boss went along with it to avoid being perceived as racist, that would be bad.

Some of the more reactionary coverage came from the Evening Standard/London Lite, as per this article, which said: "PC Alexander Omar Basha [...] refused to be posted there". However, that article isn't particularly well-written, so I'm not convinced that their interpretation is accurate. For instance: "One of the first initiatives taken by Sir Ian after taking up the post was to change the Met's log from a handwritten style to a bland type in capitals because it discriminated against short-sighted people." What log? Oh, you mean "logo". Then a bit further on: "PC Basha - in his late twenties and with a neatly-trimmed beard - is understood he has recently taken part in recent anti-war protests." I think they mean to say "is understood to have". Admittedly, I sometimes make spelling mistakes too, but I make an effort to proof-read all of my blog posts, and I'm not being paid for this.

Moving on to the veils case, I was reading this article on the BBC website. They said that "he asks women visiting his surgery to consider removing [the veil]", not that he insists on it. If he was refusing to talk to his constituents unless they followed his dress code then that would be wrong. However, I think that it's a reasonable request to make, and he's given a reason for it. Over at Random Acts of Reality (an ambulance blog), Tom Reynolds has expressed similar concerns (basically saying that it's harder to understand someone in a noisy environment when you can't lip read).

However, not everyone sees it this way. The BBC quote the chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission saying that this is selective discrimination on the basis of religion. I don't know anything about that organisation, but they sound like the type of self-appointed "community leaders" that Pratchett wrote about in Thud, who would do the most good by jumping in the nearest lake. Basically, I don't see that it's selective discrimination if you apply the same rule to everyone. I'm sure that I wouldn't be allowed to walk around in a Spider-Man mask all day, and there have been well-publicised cases of people being told to remove hats/hoodies when they go into pubs and shopping centres. For that matter, the rules about motorbike helmets can sometimes seem like a demented version of "Simon Says". If I ride my bike to the nearest petrol station, then I have to wear the helmet while I'm on my way there and back, but I have to take it off when I go inside to pay. "Put it on, now take it off, now put it on again." Dude, will you please make your bloody mind up?! It's annoying, but I go along with it because I can sympathise with the reasons (namely that the cashiers don't want to get robbed at gunpoint). Mind you, I don't know whether Muslim women are asked to remove their veils inside petrol stations; if not, then that seems like selective discrimination in their favour. (Ditto for motorbike helmets in fact, given that Sikhs can legally wear turbans instead.) Actually, if people want to start shouting about their rights (something that always raises my hackles), I wonder how disability issues affect this, e.g. if an MP was deaf and relied on lip-reading?

It's possible that Jack Straw is using the communication issue as a smokescreen, and that his real motivation is to attack Muslims, while ignoring other religious symbols (such as someone wearing a cross on a chain around their neck). However, in the absence of telepathy, I don't think it's particularly helpful to speculate about that. Instead, it's better to take his claims on their own merit. So, if you don't see face coverings as a problem, and you'd be in favour of people wearing balaclava masks at meetings, fair enough. If you think that it is a problem, but that it's outweighed by religious concerns, again fair enough. I disagree with both points, but I can respect them. If you claim that it's offensive for someone to even suggest that you follow the same rules/guidelines as everyone else, I have no sympathy.

And finally, coming back to what I said about dubious grammar, the BBC journalists still have room for improvement. I was amused by the article I read last month about healthy eating: Chips down as school term starts. Quoting from that article: "The Department for Education guidelines mean meals must include at least two portions of fruit and vegetables and deep-fried foods are restricted." I suspect that pozorvlak and totherme will immediately spot the ambiguity in that sentence, as fellow computer scientists! Basically, you can interpret it in two ways:
a) Meals must contain two items of fruit, but vegetables/deep-fried foods are restricted.
b) Meals must contain two items of fruit/vegetables, but deep-fried foods are restricted.
So, C- I think - could do better if they tried...

Comments:

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From:dwagon
Date:October 11th, 2006 09:46 am (UTC)
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e.g. if an MP was deaf and relied on lip-reading?

Like Jack Straw, who is notoriously hard of hearing (if not full on deaf)? ;)
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From:johnckirk
Date:October 11th, 2006 09:54 am (UTC)
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Well, yes, hypothetically :) (I guess I need to do a bit more research into the whole "current affairs" thing...)
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From:totherme
Date:October 11th, 2006 09:58 am (UTC)
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Is he?

Wow - I didn't know that :) Didn't see it in any of the reports I read (which is more than the average punter, I reckon), and it does put the whole thing in quite a different light for me :)

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From:susannahf
Date:October 11th, 2006 10:40 am (UTC)
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don't you mean Jack Ashley?

As far as I'm aware, Jack Straw has never admitted to having hearing problems.
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From:totherme
Date:October 11th, 2006 10:57 am (UTC)
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googling for "jack straw deaf" turns up a load of forums in which various people claim that he's deaf in one ear, and makes up for it with lip reading. Could be false authority, or it could be true :)
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From:totherme
Date:October 11th, 2006 10:56 am (UTC)
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Just in case you're interested, it seems that Gordon Brown is backing Jack Straw in this (look at the "update" at the end).

Interestingly, he's focusing not on practicality (as you are), but on "Britishness". This is the reason that my first reaction about Straw's comments were more negative than yours.

Practically, I agree - it's harder to communicate with someone who's face you can't see. But for the most part I think that the losers in that scenario are the folk that are hiding their faces. So, I think that the way to deal with it is to gently ensure awareness of that disadvantage and allow them to make their own decision. Now, Straw went to great pains to emphasize that he was trying to be as gentle as possible - which is great. And if he's got hearing issues, that makes it all the more understandable. Having said that, I think it's important to remember how intimidating a polite request from a powerful person can be. As a westerner, trying to understand the feelings of all the people involved, the best I can come up with is to try to translate the taboo into a western one. This isn't ideal because the taboo I'm thinking of is one that we've come to enjoy laughing at in recent times, but bear with me:

There are countless comedies that show the hero (an authority figure - Inspector Clouseau for example) having to strip in order to enter a nudist colony. The request is always polite and rational, but the hero feels powerless to refuse despite his obvious discomfort. The comedy comes from the fact that the hero is the most powerful figure there - the authority figure - brought down closer to the level of the people he has power over. It wouldn't be nearly so funny if he were the least powerful person in the room, come to ask for the help of someone important.

I figure that if I really believed that modesty required the covering of my face, then this scenario might be close to what it would feel like being asked - politely - by a powerful person who's help I came to ask for - to take off the veil.

So, it's difficult. I do think that folk wearing veils are at a disadvantage, but I also think that you can only lead a horse to water (as it were). Security concerns (the reason you take your bike helmet off at petrol stations) are yet another thing - and so far as I'm aware, haven't been mentioned by any politicians in this debate.

And even disregarding all of the above, I'm afraid I tend to bristle whenever anyone mentions "Britishness". We're an island of immigrants, and we have been for all of recorded history - randomly choosing to freeze the culture now seems ludicrous, and doomed to failure.

(of course I may be doing Gordon a disservice - it's possible that this is precisely what he means by "Britishness" - we'll have to wait for future speeches to find out)
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From:pozorvlak
Date:October 11th, 2006 12:08 pm (UTC)
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To quote subsys: "You can't say pre (pre pub curry) pub without brackets. I think we should deprecate the English language".
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From:totherme
Date:October 11th, 2006 12:44 pm (UTC)
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I think you can say "pub pre pre pub curry" though.... And you can do more if you allow commas and dashes :)
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From:pozorvlak
Date:October 11th, 2006 02:44 pm (UTC)
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Yay for infix notation! You could also use reverse polish notation, with the following BNF:
Social   ::= Ordering | "pub" | "curry"
Ordering ::= "pre" Social Social

[Note how I've surrounded that in <pre> tags...]
But how about (say) pre pre pre curry pub pub pre curry pre curry pub pub? Is that ambiguous, or just confusing (and downright unhealthy)? And it only works as long as "pub curry" doesn't have a separate meaning of a curry bought in a pub, and "pre" only takes a specified number of arguments (which is the /real/ reason Lisp needs all those brackets).
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From:johnckirk
Date:October 11th, 2006 03:12 pm (UTC)
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I think that "pub pre pre pub curry" is about as long as it can reasonably get, and even then you'd really need tone of voice/pauses to convey it properly. Beyond that, you get into the "buffalo buffalo buffalo ..." sentences which are technically valid but too confusing for real usage.

Coming back to my original example, one way to avoid brackets is to have something like BODMAS rules of precedence, e.g. to say that equal terms (such as "and") associate from right-to-left.
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From:totherme
Date:October 11th, 2006 03:42 pm (UTC)
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If we're going to get geeky/formal about it.... ;)

data Social = Pub 
            | Curry 
            | Ordering Social Social
              deriving (Eq, Show)

pre :: Social -> Social -> Social
pre x y = Ordering y x


Which allows us to do the original thing (remove the parens), so long as we have access to $ and flip:

Main> flip pre Pub $ pre Pub Curry 
Ordering Pub (Ordering Curry Pub)


...which is (one reason) why haskell doesn't have all those brackets :)

As for your "pre pre pre curry pub pub pre curry pre curry pub pub" thing - I notice (with a little help from hugs, I'm afraid) that there are 7 Socials in the phrase, and only 5 "pre" statements... Since every pre takes two Socials and returns one Social, and our goal is to have one Social, we need n-1 "pre"s for every "n" Socials...

So, not ambiguous, certainly confusing, and unfortunately not well formed :/
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From:totherme
Date:October 11th, 2006 03:53 pm (UTC)
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Oh - it's possibly worth noting that "pub pre pre pub curry" does an implicit flip of the type I showed here - it's not (just) the infixing that makes it work, it's (also) a redefinition of pre := flip pre.

I was going to say that the infixing just makes it obvious that it doesn't parse any other way. Unfortunately, it does parse another way:
Main> pre Pub (pre Pub Curry)
Ordering (Ordering Curry Pub) Pub

Perhaps it's that we're assuming that one has no need for pre Pub Pub, since one's already in the Pub. Or perhaps there's some weird rule about how native english speakers flip this arguments of their functions when they turn them infix...
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From:pozorvlak
Date:October 11th, 2006 04:11 pm (UTC)
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Damn, you're right. Remove the final "pub", and I think we're in business.

I'm well impressed with you writing a subsys-evening-out parser so quickly, though :-)
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From:totherme
Date:October 12th, 2006 09:57 am (UTC)
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Yup - here we go :)
Main> pre (pre (pre Curry Pub) Pub) (pre Curry (pre Curry Pub))
Ordering (Ordering (Ordering Pub Curry) Curry) (Ordering Pub (Ordering Pub Curry))


...and I think that is a unique legal parsing. Haskell won't find it for me by default though, because it's more useful to have
pre pre -> _|_
than do embark on a search of possible application orders till you find one that works. Perhaps perl 7 will do that though ;)

Oh - and I didn't write a parser - just a type and a function, as you see above. All the parsing you see here was done either by hugs trying to evaluate expressions containing that function, or by hand. Or a sort of trial and error combination of the two. I actually tried about three paren-combinations before realising that the previous expression was invalid for example ;)

Does this count as a night-out DSL implemented in haskell?
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