We have already, collectively, consciously and deliberately destroyed all vestiges of shame. Are we also participating in the full entropy of irony, context and altruism?
Of course, there will be many who argue that last night’s HandInHand.com concert from New York, Los Angeles, Nashville and San Antonio, carried by all three major networks demonstrates a significant outpouring of support, care and some $14 million (at nine p.m. when the show went off the air) for those millions of people who have been impacted by two monster storms, Harvey and Irma. There are also many examples of not-for-profit philanthropies like Doctors Without Borders, Engineers without Borders, Right to Play, War Children and the others like World Vision, The Plan, Oxfam and many others that have been making significant contributions to the plight of the dispossessed around the world for decades. So, to be fair, altruism is not dead.
Nevertheless, there are signs that our public discourse is not merely being stripped of decency, fairness, a full appreciation of the context of many complex situations and issues, but also the apparent willful denial of irony, perspective and context. Replacing the more nuanced, complex and ironic appreciation of issues in the public forum is an instant-gratification, pulgilistic and narcissistic critical parenting of anyone, everyone and all of this without a whimper of remorse, apology, reconsideration or reflection and amendment.
While working in a hovel of a mission church on the sagebrush desert on the west side of the Continental Divide, where dry, dusty air and stunted coniferous shrubs and blowing dried clumps of tumbleweed symbolized the dried spirits and hopes of many, I placed a bottle of water behind the altar for obvious reasons while conducting services. An anal and hyper super-ego warden condemned the appearance of the bottle publicly, without successfully achieving her motive of having it removed. Separation of church and state, another of the many icons worshipped by the American people, had not found a place in this Canadian consciousness, regarding that water bottle.
Neither did the separation find resonance when conversations from the previous week were embedded in homilies, without names or references, to the dismay of those who considered such ‘invasions’ of privacy so abhorrent that they withdrew from the mission.
Ironically, however, the collection, recording and boastful reporting of cash revenue was and remained one of the more obvious secular, cultural and corporate traits that served as the identity signature of the mission, both in the eyes of the worshippers and, tragically and more importantly, in the eyes of the hierarchy of the diocese. Clearly, separation of church and state did not extend to matters of financial revenue and balance sheets. The obvious contradiction and conflict, given the more natural pursuit of spiritual growth and development of both individuals and relationships with others and with God, with the pursuit of corporate goals and methods (evangelism being a surrogate for marketing and advertising) trumping the spiritual needs of the people in the pews, seemed to be lost on many.
Recently, in Canada, there have been a couple of news reports that demonstrate a cultural and societal blindness to irony and to context both of which, if not merely singular and isolated instances, could and likely will generate more of the same. The first comes from the Ontario Judicial System and concerns a judge in Hamilton who, ironically and obviously sardonically, wore a “make America great again” hat into court on the day following the American presidential election in November, 2016. He is not and was not a supporter of the victor of that election, and merely sought a little levity. However, as a consequence of some 81 complaints against his “lack of judgement” he has not been permitted to hear a single case since, and just yesterday was hit with a 30-day suspension without pay for his lack of deference to the judicial system’s “objectivity”. An Associate Professor of Law at the University of Windsor Law School is one of the complainants, and clearly agrees with the “punishment” given that the alternative would have been to remove the transgressing judge from the bench.
Think for a moment about a judicial system that is incapable of laughing at one of the most historic, tragic and laughable election results in the history of western civilization…and a system that is prepared to discipline one of its “institutions” for not following the rules of “decorum” (not of judicial judgement) without pausing to consider that there might be a difference in meaning and significance between judicial judgement and decorum. I would be one of possible thousands who would prefer to be a defendant before such a judge (if necessary) as compared with another of the anal “objectivists” who cannot see the forest for the trees. This is a very slippery slope on which the judicial system is setting its collective foot. IT could lead to things like the removal of water bottles from public view on judges’ desks in public courtrooms; it could also lead to a return of wigs for all judges; it could lead to a ban on all laughter, regardless of the source or the target of the wit inside Ontario courtrooms. And when laughter is surgically and clinically excised from the legal process, there is a different kind of cultural danger: that the judicial process is blind to the human condition that underlies each and every case that comes before the bench. If we “balkanize” the courts (to take this example) from the street of human activity, we risk such tunnel vision that only the most narrow reading of each case is permissible. Defendants, in such a situation, are at risk of being convicted because relevant and circumstantial and biographical evidence as to motive, background, mental and emotional state is relegated to the trash. Of course, the legal purists and the anal super-egos among us will be triumphant, in such a situation. However, too much will have been sacrificed on a hollow principle of perfection to which no one is capable of reaching, including the 81 complainants in this case. And of course, none of them has ever, or will ever, make a similar mis-step in ‘decorum’ in their pursuit of their legal careers.
Another report comes from CBC on the Canadian government’s provision of escape flights for stranded Canadians in the wake of tropical storm/hurricane Irma in the Caribbean. Some 900 people were evacuated on Canadian airline and military flights, according to the government. And yet, many of these people complained that they were not evacuated as quickly as they deemed both necessary and competitively appropriate, as compared with evacuees to other places. Evan Dyer, the CBC reporter who aired the report on Radio 2 yesterday, wisely and professionally, put the story into a more complete and relevant and merited context, including the loss of power at airports, the obstructions to flights on runways, and the relatively inappropriately narcissistic and unappreciative responses of the Canadians who were flown back to Toronto.
It is this blatant lack of appreciation, this wanton disregard for extenuating circumstances, this “me-first,” and “me-only” and “me-now” attitude that renders all others, including those who are doing whatever they can to help, to a judgement of incompetence, insouciance, insensitivity. In the process this attitude of selfishness and narrowness demonstrates a level of arrogance, isolation and abhorrence from the recipients that borders on repulsive. And of course, if and when any of those evacuees who might read this will say that this observer is out of touch with their reality, since I was not among them. And they will consider these comments themselves arrogant, judgemental and irrelevant.
This space is not a predictable supporter of this Canadian government or certainly of the previous Conservative government. However, these reports of a lack of appreciation and of criticism of our government go beyond what seems reasonable. Further, the former Canadian Ambassador to Cuba has argued publicly that those citizens who were evacuated from storm-torn islands in the sun should reimburse the federal government for the flight home, arguing persuasively that Canadian taxpayers should not be saddled with the cost.
Just because individual and collective perspectives have been so changed increasingly focussing on the micro, even the nano, aspects of every situation, (thereby elevating both the technical legal and miniscule accounting “facts” far above the “big picture” perspective, that continues to remain significant), does not represent a world view that is either sustainable, ethical or moral…nor does it elucidate the “whole truth”….There is a legitimate case to be made that such a perspective models accusatory, judgemental and derisive attitudes to all public utterances, events and motives. And such a judgement, worthy and honourable as a function of the forth estate, is incompatible with a public good of growing and enhancing human relations in all social situations, including classrooms, family kitchens, sanctuaries and retail operations.
Just yesterday, I witnessed an example of behaviour so disrespectful of a retail worker by a sixties-something female customer in a local retail store, that, had I been the worker, I would have had to excuse myself, go out back, report what was going on to my supervisor, take several deep breaths, in order to return to continue the abuse she was dishing out, without losing my composure. The relentless, patient and professional behaviour and attitude of the retail worker deserves a medal of merit and a promotion in the business.
A bus driver of my acquaintance persistently reports similar incidents of rider abuse, so painful and persistent that he retired early after thirty-plus years at the front of the bus.
The sea of evidence of distortion of the facts, the failure to take responsibility, and the complete and total absence of any sign of remorse, reflection and apology is just another of the warning flags that can, does and will continue to exacerbate geopolitical tensions around the globe.