Friday, July 17, 2020

Words, their definitions depending on context...is this part of the divide?


Our western culture is increasingly dependent on the word of experts as the world itself spirals into universes never before imagined, except perhaps by science-fiction visionaries. For us ordinary, even modestly educated mortals, we are swimming daily between the whirlpools of new information about threats from the virus, from cyber-crime, from rising temperatures and significant climatic change, not to mention new discoveries in science (e.g. the “breath-tester” from Finland that can detect COVid-19 in three seconds) and the so-called “rocks” of established principles of moral and ethical interaction between and among humans,  individually and in groups.

The cataract of new data produced by COVID-19, and the implications for our health, (Is it mutating? Does it leave permanent damage to liver, lungs, brain? Is it more damaging to elderly and those with “pre-mobidities,”? a new word in the vocabulary of this scribe, Can and will we really flatten the curve?) relentlessly flow from our screens, and from the mouths of various voices considered leaders  in science or in political life. It is not only the apparently conflict between the scientists and the politicians over when, how quickly, whether, how to open the economy and the schools that we face. It is also an internal conflict over where to put our trust in this or that voice, whether the voice has academic credentials or political power.

Decades ago, when we spoke of literacy, we tended to mean one’s capacity to read words, including the capacity to draw inferences, to discern between denotative meanings and connotative meanings of words, to detect evidences, patterns, to listen to the verbal and the physical gestures of those characters in our novels, our plays, and in our biographies. Then we began to add “visual” literacy, the capacity to watch images appearing in real time (often recorded) on television screens. We read the thoughts of thinkers like Marshall McLuhan who discerned a difference between hot and cool media. “Hot media engages one’s senses completely and demands little interaction because it spoon-feeds the content. Radio and film were included in this category, while TV, phone conversations and comic books were considered ‘cool’ engaging several senses less completely and requiring considerable interaction and participation by the audience. From SocialMediaToday.com, we read, in a piece by Lief Larson, entitled ‘Hot’ and ‘Cool’ Social Media, April 7, 2012, these words:
Early this week my industry co9llegaue Scott Litman, CEO of media company Magnet 360, announced a directional change for his firm. Magnet360 will now focus on social business as a social enterprise agency. In the press release he said, ‘Our clients-executive leaders-are recognizing that social is the next big thing that will transform the way we do business and engage with customers and other audiences. Everyone’s trying to figure out how social media will impact businesses, so it’s great to see firms rising to the challenge of helping clients make sens of social. McLuhan recognized each medium as an extension of a particular human faculty with the ‘media of communication’ simply the amplification of a particular human sense. ‘The wheel is an extension of the foot. The book is an extension of the eye. Clothing, an extension of the skin, said McLuhan. So what exactly does that make social media?....(On how McLuhan’s hot/cool relates to social media) we agreed ..that social media has franchised the message.

Naturally, every enterprise, (for profit, for votes, not-for-profit and even religious) deploys both human and fiscal resources in a valiant effort to “gain” “connections” and thereby supporters and thereby some form of transaction. It might be an outright purchase, or a membership, or a subscription or an investment or a donation. And numbers dominate! Volume, frequency, intensity and cash-flow from these “connections” drive many of the ancillary decisions of each organization. Likes beget likes, and “dislikes” beget other dislikes, the intensity  and duration of which might even morph into a social media “event”. Instant crowds, go-fund-me pages and even social movements are being engendered, or perhaps more accurately ‘engineered’ by and with the new media.

Literacy, today, has to include how to use, and how to respond, and how to manipulate and how to ‘succeed’ in whatever project that captures a commitment, not to mention the etiquette and the judgement to express disinformation, defamation of others, and even words that incite violence and terror. Protecting security has naturally become one of the more prominent and lagging legislative interactions, given that public debate too often follows nefarious acts like hacking, and manipulating the accounts of both high-profile persons and highly secretive agencies like science laboratories intent on formulating a vaccine for COVID-19, for example.

Not to get lost in the swamp of technology, discerning the difference in relevance and significance of, for example, a personal and private opinion and an expert opinion, comes to mind from a chapter in parenting. Standing at the nursing station of the local hospital, just having visited a very ill three-year-old daughter, posting a temperature of 105F along with severe ear aches, I was asked by the attending nurse to sign a permission for the ENT (Ear, Nose, Throat) surgeon to perform a bilateral myringotomy AND a mastoid removal the next morning. This was my first introduction to the prospect of a mastoidectomy, a word that frankly frightened me, although I did not have a precise picture of what it meant in detail. Surprised, I at first resisted signing, only to be prompted by the nurse, “Would you like to speak to the doctor?” “Yes, I would,” I replied. He listened to my hypothetical, “Could we wait at least until her temp drops a few degrees before operating?” Without pausing for a breath, he replied, “There is something you are not aware of, and that is the danger of meningitis!” To which I responded, in shock and fear, “You’re right! I will sign to give permission!”

That three-year-old will be 50 next month and I will never forget that moment when a parent’s innocence/ignorance was legitimately ‘trumped’ by an expert’s intervention.
Later, however, in another conversation about the same daughter, between her mother and that same doctor, when the question of potential allergies was raised along with a request for a referral to an allergist, that same ENT surgeon blurted, “We treat ears here!”

Of course, we sought that referral from the family doctor, to Sick Kids, and learned that multiple allergies were indeed impacting that girl’s health. Specific and nuanced preparation of a serum for her condition by a highly trained and  professional allergist provided considerable relief for years.

Navigating between the expert opinions of only one medical doctor is just one of the many navigations needed as we all try to find a healthy, affordable, minimal-risk path with minimal “side-effects” in our health care plans. We are also engaged in a similar manner in our pursuit of appropriate investment plans, our academic journeys, our political choices, and certainly in our pursuit of a spiritual life. And, given our highly “activist” and “individualist” culture, in which responsibility rests almost exclusively on the shoulders of each person, for the choices s/he makes, we are living in a period of commercial, transactional, action-driven and purchase-rewarded encounters, whether we are planning a wedding, a family, a career, or a retreat. We have morphed from individual human beings, in the eyes of the culture, into a digit to be seduced, and converted to some choice. The North American economy, for example, is reported to be driven by consumer choices to the tune of some 75%.

And that means that, in the current pandemic we are facing innumerable business failures, personal financial failures, family break-downs, impacted educational opportunities for millions, not to mention the shared implications of food shortages, work shortages, and environmental impacts for some considerable time into the future. Naturally, governments charged with “protecting” people and businesses including schools and colleges, social service agencies and health care facilities and personnel are and will continue to struggle to find the appropriate formulae to address these multiple challenges. Individuals too will be searching for creative ways to contribute, to earn, to learn and to emerge from the fog of this pandemic into a new normal.

It is not incidental to note, at such a time when all the markings of the threats are detailed and broadcast hourly, to pause to reflect on one of the prevailing premises on which our culture operates. We pay very close attention to the observable actions of others, or governments and their leaders, of things we purchase, and of the technology by which we interact. So important is the physical and the observable and the measureable, and thereby the symptoms needing to be addressed, (through medical intervention, legal intervention, fiscal intervention, and even executive intervention) that generally we pay much less attention to the “omissions” we face every day, given that those omissions are less easily observed, documented, collated and curated than are the commissions, those overt acts or words, or bills, or whatever signs and symptoms we perceive through our senses.

The omissions, however, merit much more attention than we generally give them. For example, we a quick to notice and react to a parent who is physically and/or emotionally abusing a child. We also are quick to note and react to a partner who inflicts physical and/or emotional and/or sexual abuse on his (95% statistically female) partner. We are also quick to note a driver who is exceeding the speed limit. On the other hand, we fail to pay a similar degree of attention to a parent who says little, and who is virtually if not literally absent from the parenting scene. That silence, for example, could be having a significant impact (positively and/or negatively) on the child. Similarly, in an marriage/union, the acts of one partner cannot be detached from the omissions, regardless of whatever form they might take, of the other partner.

Let’s look at a couple of examples: a mother physically and emotionally abuses a child, while the father fails to intervene. Which parent is more culpable, the mother for the observable welts on the body of the child, or the father for his failure (refusal/fear) to intervene? A teacher administers punishment to a student, for an action that clearly does not merit that punishment while the principal remains  uninvolved in the punishment and its implications. Which is more culpable of professional misconduct, the teacher, or the principal? A company hires an individual to perform a “job” the description of which, while detailed and replete with sanctions if and when specific duties are not performed or standards met, without providing adequate training, orientation and support in the execution of that appointment. In the event that either an infraction or an omission occurs or even a general inability to fulfil the job description given the undue pressures of the situation, pressures that were never detailed in a reasonable and professional orientation and training period. Who is more worthy of censure, the employee or the company for failing to provide reasonable orientation?

Now let’s move to a more pressing and immediate situation. In the United States, the number of COVID-19 cases rises exponentially daily, as do the number of hospitalizations. While death statistics rise more slowly, there are still some 140,000 deaths already recorded and the number could reach 200,000 before fall this year. Failure to take appropriate actions, at a time when those actions would have clearly impacted the spread and the fatalities from the disease, on the part of the occupant of the Oval Office, has been spoken of as a serious political and ethical and moral failure. It is not, however, likely to be considered a form of criminal negligence.
Why?

The answer from the Albert Brick Professor in Law at George Washington University, a professor of criminal law, Paul Butler, is “because ‘causation’ would be difficult to prove.” And to us non-legal-buttheads, when we are already convinced that the president’s failure to act, not only in the original instance, but on a daily basis, contributes directly to the mounting death tally from COVID-19, this use of the word “causation” seems especially archaic, perhaps even other-worldly, and certainly out of touch with our practical version of and application of the concept of “cause”.

However, upon opening even the first few paragraphs of any introduction to “causation” as a legal concept, we are met with some interesting evidence. From the lawteacher.net, we find: Factual causation (in criminal law) requires proof that the defendant’s conduct was a necessary condition of the consequence, established by proving that the consequence would not have occurred but for the defendant’s conduct.
 And from Lawshelf.com these words:

The terms, mens rea, the intent of a person behind committing a crime and actus reus, the action a person takes to perform a crime, are apparently both required for a behaviour to be considered a criminal offense. The Model Penal Code proposes four different levels of mens rea: purpose (same as intent), knowledge, recklessness and negligence. …A person acts negligently if they should have been aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that a certain consequence would result from their actions. Although the level of risk  is the same for both recklessness and negligence, the difference between the two is that with recklessness, the actor must be aware of the risk involved with his/her actions, whereas, for negligence, the actor is not aware of the risks but should have known what those risks were.

So, it is not only the cultural theme of concentrating on the “empirical” in our thought, conversation and interactions. The legal definitions, along with such other “designations” and “definitions” relevant to specific academic disciplines, also impact our lives, whether we are aware of them or not. Calculating the implications of meningitis as related to an ear infection was “outside my pay-grade; so too, apparently, is the potential for a criminal action for negligence on the part of the chief executive in not taking steps to forestall the tsunami of death and long-term health damage by this pandemic.

(With sincere thanks to Paul Butler, for his response to an email inquiry!)

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