We have become highly adept and even surgically precise in our willingness and capacity to divide the good from the bad, the morally pure from the morally corrupt, church from state, rich from poor, white from black, women from men, east from west, Christian from Muslim, atheist from believer….and many of these divisions stem from an intellectual, academic, scientific and philosophic set of premises that start from the notion that defining anything begins with a clear notion of what it is NOT.
In Canada, gallons of ink (literally and metaphorically) have been spilled in an attempt to define what it means to be Canadian as opposed to American. Starting from the word “parliamentary democracy” as opposed to a “republic,” our respective cultures have at least a peripheral and obviously superficial grasp of one of the different legal, institutional and constitutional frameworks of our two countries. And while implicit in those differences lie such nuances as a Canadian Governor General appointed by the Crown (on the recommendation of the Prime Minister) and a Prime Minister elected as a Member of Parliament, as compared with an elected President (serving what some see as both functions of GG and PM, there are far more similarities than differences between our two nations.
English language, primary capitalism with some shared public-private projects, many common entertainment, media and academic appointments and perspectives, principal historic faith communities, Christian including both protestant and Roman Catholic in slightly different ratios, a highly trained workforce, an advanced manufacturing and technology portfolio, athletic and academic transfers…these are just some of the indices that blur the lines between the two cultures.
Nevertheless, let it be clearly stated, most Canadians would not easily or readily choose to become American citizens, especially given the current administration in Washington. Whether or not some Americans would prefer to take out Canadian citizenship is an open question.
However, at the human level, looking at people on both sides of the 49th parallel, there is far more commonality than difference, while the proportions of various ethnicities varies. The traits that can be grouped as “human” pertain, as they do across the multiple national boundaries across the planet.
We all know that the ”devil is in the details” when it comes to legal contracts, defining agreements, accords, promises and expectations. In this space, words often defy deeds, and in doing so, generate a cataract of anxiety and anger. And while we all share a proclivity of promising more than we deliver, in too many situations, and there is a calculable cost for such failures of both commission and omission, the gap continues to exist.
How the details gather together, naturally and/or from conscious manipulation tends to generate some shared themes in public discourse, some of which are unifying, others more divisive.
The drama(s) being enacted on the streets of urban centres around the world, following the street murder of George Lloyd under the knee of law enforcement officers, illustrates both the public outrage at the persistent apparent contempt of white police officers for black men especially. Simultaneously, we are watching black law enforcement officers kneeling in unity with the black protesters whose actions they monitor.
“Get your knee off our necks!” shouted Rev. Al Sharpton, in his eulogy of Mr. Lloyd, in an honorable, integrous, legitimate courageous and historic judgement of the four hundred years of racism that most agree comprises an “original sin” of the republic. Applause, cheers, and warm hugs hourly greet the kneeling of law enforcement in support of the protest.
Criminality, including bullying and animal behaviour rests heavily on the “mens rea” concept of the “guilty mind” referring to one’s mental state and volition control while committing a crime. Research linking criminal behaviour to genetic factors, undermines what is known as the “immutability” bias of mens rea. Similar to the historic debate between nature and nurture, as causation of human nature, the legal community will likely be engaged in a debate between genetic roots and immutability in their pursuit of processes of how to deal with those who offend the law. And while there is no silver bullet of explanation, for criminal or any other human behaviour, just as there are almost nor silver bullets for many of the highly complex issues facing us, there is a legitimate question of when, how, why and to what effect human actions, individually and collectively influence social culture and policy, and potentially even law.
There remains, however, a ‘Grand Canyon’ between the knee of that officer on the neck of Mr. Lloyd and the “ark of history bending toward perfection” articulated so eloquently and often by people like Barack Obama. The former is a physical act of something at least akin to contempt, while the latter is a poetic, philosophic, abstract statement of an aspiration. It is the collision between act and ideal that is so apparent, and so often repeated at some many levels that warrants dissection. And that chasm, the chasm tearing at the hearts of millions of Americans, as well as millions of others including Canadians, between brutality and ideal, detonates both violence and its condemnation. It was Bob Rae, then leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, who noted a bi-polar mind set in our political way of meeting issues. We know what we will not tolerate, while we continue to tolerate it! We also know how to address, fix, ameliorate and perhaps even eliminate what we know to be wrong, while we also perpetuate an attitude, perhaps even a belief that, for some ‘reason’ we are not the one’s who need to take action, or ‘they’ will get to it eventually, or ‘we have to wait until we vote” or my boss will not accept me if I engage in political activism or…”it would seem unseemly for me to shout angrily in the streets, especially when I could and likely would be recorded by law enforcement and who knows who else.”
Inaction, indecision, rationalization, remaining silent starts very early, and often grows as one climbs the social hierarchy. At the top, we all know, that taking a courageous and risky position is often sheethed in sheep’s skin, or silk, or non-offensive and glib talk so as not to offend (excepting the current occupant of the Oval Office who has turned the tables upside down). Nevertheless, in spite of the many excuses for not acting, we must commend the courage, conviction and activism of those millions, mostly young adults, who are challenging the status quo on race in the U.S. and in Canada and elsewhere.
Trouble is, however, that waves of political activism rise and wane; human energy, including the size of the individual’s window of opportunity to take to the streets, is limited, and those holding the levers of power are far less interested in making significant changes to the status quo to which they owe their power. Outlawing knee-locks on the neck of alleged offenders, while legitimate, is like a band-aid on a lethal tumour. Training in racial sensitivity, while useful, is not much more than a flu injection, only partially effective against this human virus of fear, contempt and defiance of ‘the other’…regardless of whether that other is black, brown, Muslim, indigenous, or…pick a target.
At root, we all face a serious question about how we view ‘the other’ especially those others about whom our ancestors were ignorant, and unwilling to get to know. Equating personal experiences of bullying, for example, with the long-standing oppression of black Americans, as Stockwell Day so unfortunately did recently, is not only sad, but it points to the conflict between personal experience and public accountability.
It is the sum of multiple experiences, collated, curated and steeped in the cauldron of history that eventually generates enough heat and light to thaw frozen politicians. Nevertheless, individual biographies are determinative of how each of us perceive each circumstance, and through which lens we select.
If we are raised in a culture in which the hero dominates, for example, we will see opportunities to rescue the voiceless everywhere. If we are raised in a culture of learning, we will be more likely to consider how to plan, design and deliver an educational process that will amend the situation. If we are steeped in a medical culture, we will look for symptoms, and then seek out specific antidotes for those symptoms, knowing full well that full elimination of the virus is unlikely in our lifetime, of that of our children. If we were reared in a theological garden, we are more likely to look for “salvation” and the processes whereby “road-to-Damascus conversions might occur, as our contribution to the depraved state from which we seek release. If we come from a military ethos, we are more likely to seek out we have come to be known as “law-and-order” measures, limited by the strict application of the laws we inherited from our forefathers. If, on the other hand, we have experienced only oppression, betrayal, scarcity and alienation, we are more likely to find opportunity for rage, rebellion and violence, even though we likely know in our gut that such rebellion will only redound against us.
Given the profound differences in the ways in which we have all been reared, parented, schooled, disciplined, provided for/abandoned, spiritually/theologically counselled, it is little wonder that such variant influences rarely generate a confluence effective enough to move the official position of the government steeped in the traditions of law, government and the status and power inherent in those traditions.
Fortunately, however, it is the apparent frozen nature of the contemporary American government to all protests on behalf of the voiceless that is one of the ost motivating forces in the current movement. The men (mostly men and mostly white) are likely and hopefully the authors of their own demise, leading blindly and hubristically, from a position no longer tenable to a public who knows more, understands more profoundly and has the emotional strength and maturity of no generation that has preceded them.
It is in the hearts, minds and especially the spirits of the young men and women where the hope of their grandfathers and grandmothers lies. We know that we have failed by genuflecting too easily and too willingly to the authority of weak and self-serving men, and bowing to easily to the kinds of cultural norms that bound and gagged the voiceless while we silently stood by. We know that we have tried, and failed, to preserve our papier-mache reputations with the establishment in our failed attempt to ‘fit in’ in what we thought and we taught was the route to our own padded resume, inflated portfolio, and/or vaulted stature in our society. The establishment cared for us only so long as we did not rock their boat. They were willing to listen only if we stayed within the fences of their agendas, their ambitions and their credo’s.
If we wandered outside those fences, we were considered “green-broke” or non-compliant or worse ‘troublesome’ and thereby unmanageable and untrustworthy. I recall specifically listening to a corporate consultant who was critiquing a personal profile questionnaire from this scribe. The questionnaire from a WACO (wacko) address, prompted answers about how power should be deployed in an organization. Naturally, this naïve scribe answered in a manner that was not in keeping with the expected and strongly preferred response, advocating for speaking up and for lobbying within the organization and for questioning authority. The male mathematics graduate, former high school principal, already surrounded by a cadre of compliant and growing wealthy team (again mostly male), argued that I would be too difficult for him to manage, after informing me that the test would have no bearing on the decision of the hire.
Deceptive and correct at the same time, was this team leader whose company already had secured contracts to provide the federal government with senior civil servants, sadly in what can only be seen as another limiting and security-fixated manner by which the government maintains what is known as stability and responsibility.
Sacrificing innovation, experimentation, creativity and spontaneity and adaptability for stability and what has come to be known as responsibility, however, is a very high price. At a time when a pandemic, an economic collapse, a racial uprising and a global climate crisis threaten not only the social order of many societies, including the livelihoods of millions of humans, and even the food supply of millions more, it is time to ask that colloquial question, “How is this working for you?”
We have to rethink and reformulate not only our notions of how we treat each other and how we treat the planet, but how we construct an economy and a justice system that is based not on fear and the abuse of power by a few over the many, and not on the premises that the earth is an inexhaustible resource, or that man is superior to nature, no matter what the theological thinkers have told us. And such a revolution will have to be spared as many open and destructive conflicts over receding resources as we can collectively manage to prevent. And prevention, it seems, is one approach to our problems that has so far escaped our notice, preferring as we do, crisis management after the deluge. (Is that too another masculine preference for the heroic?)