Talk of human suffering dominates our way of reporting on political and military and terrorist conflict, draught, floods, disease epidemics, and an encyclopaedia of acts of inhumanity to other humans, and to nature, including the planet.
Whether it consists of bombings of schools and hospitals in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, or suicide bombs in crowded concert halls in Paris, or massive fires followed by flash floods in Fort MacMurray, humanity is daily, hourly bombarded with so many and so desperate forces of suffering that we risk becoming immune, especially when the suffering is of “others” and not of the “self”. Nevertheless, there is also suffering right on our street, in our neighbourhood and certainly among those we work with every day. Paying attention to pain and suffering, offering solace and comfort, requires almost no search; it meets us with the passing of every ambulance, hearse, potentially with each police or fire vehicle and certainly with every daily news paper and newscast.
And then there is the pain and suffering that walks with each human being, right on that diving board that someone slicked with bar soap making it ice-slippery for innocent and unknowing and unsuspecting divers, leaving gashes from rusty bolts in pristine chins. And there is the school-yard, and more recently twitter and facebook taunting of name-calling, based on such intimate details as body shape, choice of attire, colour of skin, street address, and test scores. We learn suffering from both our successes and our failures since there are always those whose vision looks through a narrow periscope of jealousy, insecurity, inadequacy and the struggle to be OK through the put-down of another.
If we only knew at the time, that many of the insults/assaults, whether verbal or physical, bubble out of the lives of those who project their own inadequacy on those who for whatever reason seem like the most available and the most worthy targets for their poison. And then there are the slings and the arrows to which we have to pay attention: those criticisms that do, fully and accurately, express our failings, our acts of betrayal, whether intended or not, of those we love. Any time we inflict pain on others, we suffer too, not so much for our “sins” as “by” those acts. So baked into the cake of human life is the notion that suffering and pain are agents for our learning, for our discernment, for our growth and for our forgiveness, or more importantly for us to cling to our resentments, our revenge-mentality, our bitterness and our refusal to grow and adapt. We do have the option to let those lead bricks of anger, shame, guilt and resentment float from our shoulders like Ivory soap, as we walk into the water at the beaches of our lives.
The weight of those bricks, while lifted, will leave their mark in our memories, in our imaginations, and in our world view. All experience, ranging from joy and euphoria to profound anger resentment and bitterness becomes a part of the lives of those who have passed through their unique experiences, and who have been shaped and moulded by their rubbing shoulders with all of their encounters and all of their human influences.
For some, pain and suffering come early, like a hungry scavenger bird early in the morning, in tumors, or leukemia, or autism, or turrets, or down syndrome and their parents learn very quickly of the depth of the gift of those children in their lives, when the world too often fails to see or to join in the celebration of that gift. Of course, such twists of natural fate can also imprison those parents in narrow, cold and swamp-like cells of self-pity as they seek to cope with the burden they carry. Undoubtedly, a considerable portion of the professional support for such parents is a re-framing of their emotional intelligence, acquainting them with their available and accessible supports, and imprinting a reality check that demonstrates the opportunities and the limits of the new, unexpected and overwhelming responsibilities.
For others, pain takes the form of scarcity of what most consider normal necessities like food, shelter, medical care, and access to education and employment. These people, still numbering in the millions, if not billions, comprise a blight like a drought on our collective conscious, given that we have the resources to meet these basic needs. And while we are making some progress in cutting poverty, we have a long way to go to its elimination and to the provision of basic human needs/rights the human community has come to believe belong to all humans everywhere.
Street violence, erupting from drug-dependent gang violence plagues many neighbourhoods even in ‘developed’ countries, where an excess of wealth would seem to make such developments unnecessary and unwanted. For families living in such conditions, and for professionals like police and social workers, the pain is both palpable and seemingly unending, given the underlying fear, linked to its overpowering need for power, that sustains the killings and the addictions and the desperation.
Violence, for some, like the spate of terrorists now dotting the globe, is a political weapon inflicted in some “holy” cause that erupts from a perversion of any faith system. And the suffering that violence inflicts is so unpredictable and so disruptive that law enforcement’s capacity to keep pace with the technology that enables it struggles to match. One of the risks of this gap is that the “authorities” will over-compensate and inflict their abuse on innocents, creating a small and perhaps inevitable number of cases of collateral damage, that phrase that so inflicts objectivity on the victims, and removes shame and guilt from the authorities.
And it is in the way we use words that so much pain and suffering occurs. An old adage comes to mind: Sticks and stones will hurt my bones but names will never hurt me!” How tragically ironic, given the power of “names” to inflict real pain, and to embed their ink into our veins forever. These acts of violent abuse, so readily available and accessible even to one with a minimal vocabulary, especially to those who believe their have no other “weapons” by which to protect themselves, are flung about with increasing abandon, and we are left to wonder how their targets will ever grow from the wounds so inflicted.
What is the purpose of such violence, except the enhancement of the illusion of power of those flinging the invectives? What is the purpose of most of the pain and violence that is inflicted on others by humans in their circle, their family, their workplace, their church….if not to enhance, or to reclaim, some lost power or influence, to regain a false sense of confidence, to protect their position as the protector of some official organizational rule, or dogma, or to bring the defiant into compliance.
And so those targets of the unjust use of power, the abusive deployment of power, by individuals or by institutions have to become the agents of reformation so that such abuses can be curtailed, and potentially eliminated. Social justice can and must rely on the energy of those who have experienced its perversion, or its mis-application, or its opposite, if we are to make any progress toward its achievement.
Social justice requires the passion, the commitment and the determination of those who have suffered to protest, and to offer even the most simply suggestions of how to do things differently, and especially why doing things differently only makes sense. For example, policies and rules of “zero tolerance” are in themselves, abusive of many people while over-protecting the authorities from political criticism when they are making nuanced judgements under such directives. A grade ten A student is barred from continuing her education because she has a paring knife for the fruit and vegetables in her lunch in the glove box of her car in the school parking lot. A zero tolerance policy of no relationships between men and women in the workplace fails to take into account the maturity and the responsibility of adults, both men and women, for their own decisions. When the workplace authority substitutes for the legitimate decisions of their workers, in a situation in which human relationships will inevitably develop, those authorities are playing “parent” to their workers, for the sake of protecting the reputation of their organization and the reputation of their own careers. Women especially, in this drama, are patronized, parented by their “big daddy” boss’s rules that imply their inability or unwillingness to make responsible and mature decisions. Such “zero tolerance” is not an instrument of equality, nor is it an instrument of justice, nor is it likely to be able to be enforced, given the repeated evidence that such relationships continue to occur and professional careers continue to be wrecked by its imposition. This is just another imposition of a kind of “male” perversion of perfectionistic power, perhaps requested by short-sighted feminists whose conception of both masculine ad female genders is such that a power imbalance in physical terms will always and inevitably transfer to a power imbalance in “forming the relationship”. And such a zero tolerance approach demeans and belittles both genders and both parties.
Zero tolerance, by definition, rejects the notion of due process, and the human judgement of those in positions of responsibility, so those making such policies and rules, really are not trusting anyone, including the responsible persons, and the adults in their employ. It is a form of “justice” that is a perversion of itself and there really are no situations in which its employ is an expression of real justice. It is an incursion of the political correctness that has infected our public institutions for the purpose of protecting those institutions from public shame and embarrassment, analogous to the shaming of a pregnant teen and her banishment to a home for unwed mothers out of her home town, to protect her reputation and that of her parents. This kind of human experience, the pregnancy, just as the “relationship” among co-workers, is a reality, will continue to be a reality, and will not be excised from public consciousness so long as human beings have a strong will to engage in sexual activity. (Is anyone ready to bet against that proposition?)
Teaching workers about zero tolerance, also, will not inculcate a compliance with the zero tolerance policy given its basic fallibility as a counter to human nature. Churches, schools, the military, and many other organizations like hospitals, have worked vigorously to implement zero tolerance policies on such issues as raised voices in anger. Anger, in such situations, is considered outside the bounds of the workplace, so, if and when one becomes angry at work, and expresses that anger even when the provoking situation is worth of such anger, one is immediately punished for such an outburst. The raised voice, then, is the “problem” and not the issue that provoked the raised voice in the first place. Presumably, such a policy comes from the insertion of the feminine influence in the workplace culture. Given the evidence from early years that females are much more compliant with school and family rules than boys, and that boys are thereby deemed to be more violent, when they are really trying to find ways to express their emotions without accessing the appropriate “feeling” vocabulary, zero tolerance policies on anger in the workplace clearly favour the female cohort in that situation at the expense of the male cohort.
Of course, there is no excuse for any form of physical violence in any professional situation, but a zero tolerance policy against the expression of anger, will only enhance the potential for physical violence, or for detachment and withdrawal when the focused anger at the silliness of a workplace policy is both warranted and needed. The zero tolerance policy places an unwarranted and distorting influence on the free expression of ideas, reactions and potential improvements that could emerge from its removal. It also removes all judgement, and the need to pursue the details of any situation that resulted in an official complaint, on the part of those responsible for workplace health and culture. And, throwing out the baby with the bathwater, as these initiatives have done, (with the silent compliance of most men who refused to be accused of sexual abuse by protesting) does not make the kind of workplace culture that achieves or even purports to achieve workplace equality between the genders.
Schools too, suffer from a similar distortion and imbalance in the cultural ethos they strive to achieve that favours the female complaint predictability. And such policies and practices present models for families that throw the balance between men and women out of existence. Women are not more in need of protection than men, and men are not in need of deterrence if they feel they are being treated with respect.
And while such “pain and suffering” in a cultural perspective does not compare with the pain and desperation of those facing bombs, hunger, disease and death while escaping war and terror, it is nevertheless indicative of the kind of cultural cornerstones on which we are prepared to operate now and to propose for our children. Clearly, they will have considerable work to do to undo many of the legacies the grey set is leaving behind.