Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Entrapped in a bubble of our own making

In another life, I found myself in front of a dozen aspiring law enforcement students, in a private career college, engaged in a conversation about their individual and collective behaviour and attitudes inside the ‘school’. (This is more of a for-profit business than a school, given the “revenue/profit” from the enrolment eclipsed the “learning” aspect of the situation.) For the previous few weeks, this particular group had been “raising Cain,” as they acted out their libido/id and simultaneously eroded their prospects for a good reference to the official police college. Failure to gain admission to the provincial college would effectively thwart any ambition and hope of their eventually fulfilling their dream of wearing the “blue” of the several police forces to which they aspired. After having gained their attention, one early afternoon, I made a simple, obvious and apparently relevant comment:

“You guys are simply sabotaging any future in law enforcement by your attitudes and actions around here; each day you erode the potential of a favourable letter of reference to police college, regardless of whatever marks you might attain on tests and exams,” was the sum total of that statement.

They presented a somewhat shocked look, first at me and then at each other, as if they were each searching for some agreement and support in their acceptance of the relevance of the observation. According to reports, later, they made significant attempts to shift their attitude and behaviour, although whether or not any serve in “blue” today is an open question.
Unfortunately, such a simple antidote, in the midst of self-sabotaging behaviour is rarely effective, or even accepted. The singular focus of attending police college, and the obvious and clear path to that end are not always, or perhaps even often, the background to actually “hearing” and accepting such a criticism/observation. Rarely, are we as individuals, and certainly not as groups, so laser-focused, and the pathway to our aspirational destination so simply and clear. However, there is at least a single overlapping trait among these young men and among the rest of us: the pursuit of power, however that pursuit is envisioned, modelled, and pursued.

Blue uniforms, often framed in gold braid, topped with an easily recognizable and inspirational head piece, shoes or boots that literally glisten in sun, rain, mud, sleet and snow and for some, that all-important hip-holster with hand-gun, offer a gestalt for many young men and women of the kind of “self-possessed” and self-assured future of public service. Add a high-powered vehicle (and/or horse and/or motorcycle), a blazing siren, and more recently flashing blue-red mounted lights on grille, roof and rear window of their vehicle and undergird the picture with television and film dramas that paint these men and women as both potential heroes and martyrs and the picture is literally infatuating, if not seductive and at times addictive.

And even more deeply buried in the law enforcement culture is the notion of order: the hierarchy, the rule books, the reports, the prison cells, the court rooms, the interview rooms and the plethora of instruments to both master and apply in order to seek and succeed in a conviction. Another feature of the “order” is the basic notion of “right and wrong” envisioned at least in the early stages of one’s apprenticeship and appointment in terms clearly defined, and theoretically at least, relatively easily applied in the assessment of any situation to which they might be called. Not ever designed as aphrodisiacs, but rather as supports, all of these symbols of authority, respect, courage, and even compassion (“serve and protect” as the prevailing motto) magnetically draw individuals from a wide range of motivations, very often including the search for meaning, and justification. Both of these (meaning and justification) can be and often are, surrogates for “control” in the psychological, sociological and perhaps even philosophic and religious senses.

Naturally, there is at least a portion of these physical, emotional and psychological features of the profession to which we can all identify, in our own pursuit of meaning, purpose, justification, and “power” in the fullest sense of those words. Many of us, however, are not either prepared or even tempted to pursue the kind of risks to life, limb, family and career that are embedded in the life of a police officer. We are, nevertheless, engaged in a similar pursuit, however we might envision, define, investigate, and commit to its realization. And in the course of that pathway, we have inevitably and inexorably, thankfully and tragically, to confront the relationship between those extrinsic and intrinsic features both of our motivations and our world views that capture our attention.

For example, in our young lives, we are constantly chasing those “things” that come to our attention commonly referred to as “bangles and beads”…objects that simply attract, entertain, help us to engage with others, and attain some kind of identity/status among our peers. Starting with stars on our seat work in the early years, and the concomitant “approvals” at home for having been given one of those stars, we learn how to be “successful”. In this same vein, we acquire the ribbons, medals, trophies, prizes and public acclaim for some specific achievement, athletic, artistic, social justice, rescuing, embracing another in difficulty, and scholarships as more of the menu of “awards,” “affirmations,” “commendations,” and they become some of the sign posts to “our picture of our future”….however veiled and mystified that picture might appear in our minds. If we are “good” at something, there are two features that accompany and infuse that experience:

·        first that we might consider spending more time and effort in the pursuit of that “activity” and
·        second, that we can and often do transfer that “success” and all of its accompanying preparations, disciplines, skills and attitudes to a different  activity. (Sometimes both applications are appropriate!)

Implicit in this portrayal of our “skill” and “identity” development are the several “others” who, themselves, have gone before us in their lives, learned their own respective “meaning” and “purpose” and “identity” and “career” and presumably their own “power and authority” over their lives.

Significant, in the cultural envisioning of this process of development is the role of extrinsic motivations offered by others. All of those people have and continue to recognize and reward the kind of attitude and behaviour that is consistent with their own picture of the successful “artist” or “athlete” or “debater” or “scientist” or “doctor” or “nurse” or “social worker” or “engineer” or “accountant” or “lawyer” or “diplomat” or “astronaut” or “activist.” Roles, as symbols and incarnations of performances, take on a highly significant stature in our envisioning of our personal and social and cultural future lives. And very often, we become highly adept at one or more of those roles, find deployment, income and personal satisfaction in their execution. And, in developing a more sophisticated and subtle mastery of both the skills and the attitudes, the world views and the expectations of adaptation to new circumstances in our chosen “specialty,” we further advance “up” the ladder of the pyramid that comprises our chosen field, or arena or theatre, lab or board room.
Naturally, too in the course of these developments, we encounter men and women in other “fields” who themselves, have championed their own respective “operating room,” and have attained their own recognitions and acclaims for their contribution to the health and future of the society.

Parallel to the above pursuit of professional and personal achievements, and often interrupting or interfering with that process, both within individuals and in their scepticism of the universality of the pattern, is another pathway, often encumbered with defeat, self-doubt, self-loathing, scepticism and even cynicism. Systems that are predicated on the inevitability of this “other side,” include hospitals, prisons, courts, public accounting, law enforcement, social work and fire-fighters, among others. It is not simply a class war, nor a balanced equation of one side needing the other (applied to both sides) that this picture evolves, although some of the public rhetoric inevitably falls into that sewer of disdain, contempt and hate, from both sides.

The successful ones, naturally, start their public philosophy from the perspective that they have “pulled themselves up” by their bootstraps, and everyone else needs to do the same. That is the first merely partial, but highly inflammatory archetype. The second equally highly inflamed archetype comes from the “street” many of whom have lost hope, dreams and the will to live, and blame their situation on the imbalance they can easily see and document that favours the “upper class”. Whether this social division has racial, ethnic, linguistic, political ideological, gender or age dimensions, there continues to be a growingly fractious rubbing of sociological/political/economic/environmental/religious/cultural tectonic plates that seem to be generating more and more social/cultural/political/economic/environmental/ethical earthquakes. These quakes are more frequent, more intense, more widely dispersed and more diverse in kind than the world may have witnessed for centuries.

As the most recent polling of U.S. prospective voters indicates, many people are using words like “fear,” “anxiety,” “apprehension,” and lack of trust in the viability and reliability, the trustworthiness of the next presidential election in 2020. Of course, public opinion polls ask questions on a highly specific subject, and rarely undertake to connect the dots between a number of variables. Little wonder these words are coming to the surface of the public discourse.

The Amazon is on fire.
The nuclear proliferation treaty between the U.S. and Russia has been ditched.
The Iranian Nuclear Accord has been abandoned.
The Paris Climate Accord has been trashed by trump.
The trade war between the U.S. and China threatens the world markets and foreshadows a recession.
The Strait of Hormuz is dangerous for needed shipping.
Hurricanes, fires, tornadoes, and tropical storms are increasing in both frequency and intensity, as well as in distribution.
The plight of refugees, asylum-seekers, migrants and displaced persons grows daily, as does the resistance to their numbers, and their kind among the “developed” world.
Mass shootings, especially in the U.S. and addictive drugs, both illicit and prescribed, inflict hundreds if not thousands of preventable deaths.
Corporations inflict products and promises on innocent consumers and clients, for their own profit and greed.
Politicians serve, first and foremost, their own electoral/power/identity/career ambitions.
Digital technology has provided a universal platform for millions of thugs to hack, invade, destroy, assassinate and debilitate in anonymity and impunity.
And, those people and institutions traditionally entrusted with addressing the many and varied, dangerous and planetary issues, have eunuched themselves and their institutions by turning them over to personal extrinsic ambition, power, greed and “success”….all of this really a siren call of insecurity, impoverishment, and the addiction to power and authority, in its extrinsic application and sense.

Depending to a sycophantic degree on pollsters, advertisers, image coaches, policy wonks and legal departments, our political “leaders” have abdicated their authentic roles as “servants” of a public good, and have become mere straw men and women who fail to answer legitimate questions posed by legitimate reporters and interviews, who themselves, are bound by politically correct rules and procedures not to “inflame” their “sources” in order to preserve both the status quo and their access to those sources. Failing to even use the word “racist” to describe the current occupant of the Oval Office, is just one of the many examples of a failure of integrity, authenticity, and courage that is emitted from the public media every day and hour.

And to depict the current global/international/national/provincial/state/urban crisis  as merely an
Ø economic or structural failure, (as candidates Warren and Sanders specifically are doing) or as a
Ø political systemic failure, or
Ø a failure of the global marketplace, or as
Ø a breakdown of the IMF, The G-7, U.N., or as
Ø a failure of government institutions to “keep up” with the pace and complexity of technological change, or
Ø a moral bankruptcy of all ideologies, or a collapse of religious institutions,
Ø a failure of the education system to “keep up” with the employment needs of the future, or merely of
Ø a failure to “see the big picture” and to “obsess about the minutiae, or
Ø to over-administer addictive drugs or to fail to develop an adequate national security apparatus,
Ø or merely to defer to the “dialogue of the deaf” as Margaret Atwood dubbed the nationalist movement in Quebec decades ago
Ø or to champion a war of the genders on behalf of one or the other, or of the many
Ø or to depict the world as falling into the trap of Orwell’s 1984, or Huxley’s Brave the World
Ø or to expect some heroic figure a super-man or super-woman to fix this immanent and consuming vortex
Ø or to think that eliminating a trade imbalance will rectify Wall Street
These are all minimalist, to a degree in their frame. And, at the heart of our situation is the human being, the singular human being who has been thwarted, both through an indoctrination into an extrinsic portrayal of success (even churches adopt the corporate model of balance sheets of dollars and numbers of pew-sitters) at the expense of a much more intrinsic picture both of our identity and our prospects for a future on the planet.

We are never going to eliminate “evil” from the planet. We are never going to have to reach out a helping hand, both individually and collectively. We are never going to make PEACE between all of the many factions among us. However, we might begin to consider “things” and “people” differently, not merely as functions in someone else’s equation, (even one of their’s that we have put on as our’s) but as having beauty, worthy, value, respect, honour and dignity per se.

 I once gave a copy of David Gurian’s book, The Wonder of Boys, to a young couple who had just welcomed home their first baby, a boy. The father consumed every paragraph and page of the book, while the mother refused even to open it. So deep, within a single family, are the divisions, the antipathies, the degrees of separation between and among us that even a dialogue between those two parents about Gurian’s celebration of their newborn is literally, metaphorically and tragically implausible, and impossible. When I suggested to the Men’s Dove marketing and PR department that they consider a similar gesture to all parents of newborn boys, they replied, “We don’t to that!”

This is not merely a cognitive dissonance. Nor is it an ideological divide, nor a gender divide, nor an ethical divide, nor a wealth and income divide. It is a cloud-cover of willful, deliberate, conscious, and at the same time somewhat naïve, innocent and duplicitous slide into instant gratification enboldened by an availability of trinkets, a surfeit of insouciance, a distancing from “the other” and a planetary disease of self-sabotaging narcissism, greed, individualism and fixation on my power this moment.

All else is potentially, if not in fact, enemy, dangerous, to be resisted and avoided…and yet our lives are so inextricably and inevitably entwined that we each need a poster of POGO hanging on our wall….

“We have met the enemy and he is us!” ….just like those young men in law enforcement class.   

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