Saturday, September 20, 2014

Public issues need a nuanced and articulate body politic for both action and reflection... not kneejerk reactivity

The public and ubiquitous broadcasting of the beheading of two captive hostages by ISIS ignited the United States public, along with the ordinary citizens of other western countries like Great Britain, France, Australia, Canada as well as a few Islamic countries in the Middle East. It was a step too far. However, that was the deliberate and cunning plan of the leaders of ISIS, to demonstrate their growing hubris, to enhance their recruitment efforts and to taunt especially the U.S.
Similarly, the Ray Rice punch of his then inebriated fiancé caught on casino video in New Jersey, after its release, prompted a significant change in the process of "dealing" with such behaviour also considered a step too far.
However, in the case of ISIS, their virulent violence has been imposed for months on the innocent and unprotected people of Syria, and more recently Iraq, in pursuit of an Islamic caliphate, without arousing the western public and thereby their politicians. Similarly, domestic violence has been an out of sight out of mind issue for decades, if not centuries, in many countries, including most 'developed' western countries.
What is it about an igniting "match" that finally brings about a kind of alarm and the necessary ensuing change in public attitudes, and thereby permission even demands, for leaders to take action on threats that have been extant without public rage, for a considerable time?
Have we become so inured to the parade of human tragedy, both those stories resulting from man's inhumanity to his fellow man, and those stories that depict what are perceived as "acts of nature"? Yet we all know that the line separating those two categories of stories is blurring by the minute, and after all, humans are, as they have always been, an integral and intimate component of "nature".
Are we so immune to the 24-7-365 drum beat of disasters through the deployment of the latest technologies, that, in order to merely continue to live our lives, we close our mind, heart and even conversations to our individual and our collective relationship to those "dark stories"?
Have we so cocooned our lives that it takes a "shock" of such considerable proportions that our consciousness is finally aroused? It would seem that there is something to this theory in our lagging and dangerous response to the Ebola epidemic, which some estimates now say could infect up to half a million before it is brought under control.
The government in Westminster was certainly laggard towards the threat from the independence movement in Scotland until the polls were finally so dangerously close that all three party leaders were moved to place a "VOW" in the Daily Record in Scotland promising radical change, without having to take account for the implications of their promises, just to move undecided voters towards voting "No"....and now those very leaders face increasingly loud protests demanding similar devolution of powers from other segments of the body politic of the United Kingdom, including England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and even Northern England.
The world, and this time it means all countries, has certainly been and continues to be a reluctant participant in the effort to counter the environmental dangers of climate change and global warming, once again dependent as "officialdom" is on the push-back from those corporate and government institutions which profit from the conduct of their business using processes that are clearly detrimental to the ozone layer in the atmosphere.
If there is a fire in a neighbourhood, then the people of that neighbourhood awaken to the dangers to their own homes and their lives from that fire. We send firefighters, trucks amid loud sirens to announce the emergency. If an individual has a serious spike in pain from anywhere in his or her body, similarly sirens go off in the consciousness of their family, prompting phone calls to ambulances, health care professionals, and eventually, if needed, a trip to the 'emergency' room.
"Emergencies" are regarded as a last resort, and so long as events do not rise to the level of an emergency, we muddle through, while the circumstances that will eventually and inevitably lead to an emergency continue to grow. And, embedded in that conventional consciousness is the notion that no one wants to draw attention to him or herself by making a public statement that announces a perception of real and impending danger, lest s/he be deemed to be exaggerating the danger, suffering from the disease of seeing an apocalypse in every threat, and thereby incurring the scorn, even the contempt of those in the neighbourhood by giving in to "fear"....the greatest of all public enemies.
It is our relationship to our own fear that is the thermostat,  that 'turns on' our actions, both individually and collectively.
We grow up in homes and schools which attempt to dampen our fears, often through a minimizing approach that makes most circumstances more "manageable" mostly for the benefit of those responsible. We work in organizations that have become paranoid of lawsuits initiated by those injured on the job, and hence institute training programs to "make the workplace safe"...probably more to avoid the insurance premium increases that result from legal settlements than from any altruistic motive to keep people safe. Doctors have withdrawn from performing specific procedures as a direct result of the incompatible insurance premiums spikes that occur too frequently from even the slightest glitch in those procedures. Teachers no longer hug their primary school students out of fear of discipline, including removal, following a nasty hearing that will inevitably distort whatever incident that prompted the litigation in the first place.
Politicians, naturally much more mirror than lamp in their respective districts, fear public contempt, scorn and removal, if and when they articulate threats before the public is "ready? to listen, and to support the proposed actions to the shared perception of the danger. And that means that, given the highly responsive human nerves to the immediate surroundings and the much less radioactive response of those nerves to dangers to others far away, we are in danger of failing to respond to those threats that have become universal while our collective perceptions are stuck in the NIMBY vice.
(Not In My Back Yard)
It is not only our legislative process that has not caught up to our laser-speed changes in technology; it is our very survival instinct that provides a filter to the increasingly ubiquitous radar screens and their broadcasting agencies that bring stories at the instant they occur to television and computer screens and even to phones and watches around the world. We are so intimately wired that we are overwhelmed with hourly tsunamis of negative information, the cumulative impact of which could be our digging even deeper holes of isolation and insulation, just in order to carry out our tasks.
In a memorable poem by Robert Frost, a young man severs his hand while sawing a timber in a rural home, bleeds to death, and the family, "being not the one dead," goes on with their tasks. We are perceived as, and welded to the perception and the belief, that we "must go on" regardless of the circumstances, with or without pausing to grieve. Our resilience, our tenacity and our determination have helped us to withstand and to overcome such threats as the Black Death (to which the current Ebola epidemic is now being compared), the London Blitz, the D-Day battle on the beaches of Normandy, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the growing number of nuclear disasters, the various epidemics of pneumonia, diphtheria, tuberculosis, and various flu epidemics while discerning and developing antidotes to many of our biological threats.
Nevertheless, we continue to face new dangers such as the mutation of the Ebola virus, the mutation of the Islamic terror threat, the clearly demonstrated mutated Russian bear under Putin, the mounting and incontrovertible evidence that we are all participating in the pollution of the atmosphere through the release of carbon dioxide, even though there are signs that the ozone layer is recovering from its most depleted level over the last thirty years, given our agreement to detoxify our emissions of hydroflorocarbons.
There is a disconnect between the language of the daily/hourly newscasts dependent as they are on the headline-worthy, 'breaking news' seduction designed to generate audiences, and the language of political and corporate and academic leadership dependent as they are on reflective, non-emotional, empirically based observations and projections and predictions. Our water-cooler conversation oscillate between the two kind of verbal representations. We are in possession of increasingly available dishes of both kinds of "language"...and it has always been the case that "In the beginning was the word and the word became flesh".....
And that means that at the core of both our perceptions and our resulting frames on reality is our capacity to give "words" to whatever we are experiencing....and the degree to which those words reflect a capacity and a willingness to include nuance, variety and increasingly fine distinctions, devoid of the nuclear extremes on either side of "the reflective" and the "inflammatory" does have and will continue to have a significant impact on our capacity to confront and to resolve our most serious dilemmas, threats and dangers.
As I read the texts from those in the next generations, I am struck by their brevity, their succinct character and their excising of nuance....partly out of the pragmatic reality that keyboard size militates against nuance, and partly out of the busyness of our lives. However, while we may be making more frequent utterances, are we also in danger of reducing those utterances to polarities that escape nuance, because nuance is too complicated for us to entertain.
We have for a long time considered the major difference, beside ideology, between Dubya and Obama is the comfort level with nuance: Bush proudly declaring he never does nuance, while Obama swims like a fish in the oxygen and the creativity of its oceans, rendering him not only cautious but also refined in his perceptions and his policies...a framing of the American political and cultural reality that is out of sync with the simplistic and Manichean perceptions held by the news media, and their audience.
Those beheadings, including the most recent foiled plot of beheading a "random" person on the street in Australia, are beastly and ghastly and need to be prevented. However, we need to guard against a political culture than can and will only be aroused by such abhorrent acts or dangers, when the reactions too often prove to be too little too late.
Not only would our conversations be enhanced with a more awakened perception of the underlying dangers of many of the issues we currently consider far off and thereby benign, they would also be significantly enhanced by our openness and our use of words of nuance and sublety and complexity....neither the news media nor the political and diplomatic voices have a monopoly on the presentation of our reality...and we have to continue to be vigilant, articulate and impassioned in our curating of the realities presented by all the voices of officialdom....
Can we and will we accept the challenge?

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