Wednesday, November 30, 2022

More reflections on ubiquitous cruelty

 Looking a little further into this notion of cruelty and some of both the traditionally accepted motivations, we find some interesting findings.

In a piece in The New Yorker by Paul Bloom, November 20, 2017, entitled “The Root of All Cruelty? (subtitled) Perpetrators of violence we’re told, dehumanize their victims. The truth is worse”, we read:

As the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss noted, ‘humankind ceases at the border of the tribe, of the linguistic group, even sometimes of the village.’ Today the phenomenon seems inescapable. Google your favourite despised human group—Jews, blacks Arabs, gays, and so on—along with words like ‘vermin,’ ‘roaches,’ or ‘animals; and it will all come spilling out….Such rhetoric shows up in the speech of white supremacists—but also when the rest of us talk about white supremacists….What about violence more generally? Some evolutionary psychologists and economists explain assault, rape, and murder as rational actions, benefitting the perpetrator or the perpetrator’s genes….On  the other hand, much violent behavior can ben seen as evidence of a loss of control. It’s Criminology 101 that many crimes are committed under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and that people who assault, rape, and murder show less impulse control in other aspects of their lives. In the heat of passion, the moral enormity of the violent action loses its purchase. But ‘Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships’ (Cambridge) by the anthropologist Alan Fiske and the psychologist Tage Rai, argues that these standard accounts often have it backward. In many instances, violence is neither a cold-blooded solutions to a problem nor a failure of inhibition; most of all, it doesn’t entail a blindness to moral considerations. On the contrary, morality is often the motivating force: ‘People are impelled to violence when they feel that to regulate certain social relationships, imposing suffering of death is necessary, natural, legitimate, desirable, condoned, admired, and ethically gratifying.’ Obvious examples include suicide bombings, honor killings, and the torture of prisoners during war, but Fiske and Rai extend the list to gang fights and violence toward intimate partners. For Fiske and /Rai, actions like these often reflect the desire to do the right thing, to exact vengeance, or to teach someone a lesson. There’s a profound continuity between such acts and the punishments that—in the name of requital, deterrence, or discipline—the criminal justice system lawfully imposes. Moral violence, whether reflected in legal sanctions, the killing of enemy soldiers in war, or punishing someone for an ethical transgression, is motivated by the recognition that its victim is a moral agent, someone fully human.

It seems there might be a significant shift from a conventional and detached notion of the perpetrators of cruelty to dehumanize their victims, in order to make it feasible for them to inflict their pain, some theorists suggest that it is the fully human, the moral agent, even the young child in a parenting situation, or an adherent in an ecclesial situation, that is the target of cruelty.

Families, schools and churches, taken together and also separately, and the individuals in each, again together and separately, have a responsibility to consider the use of power (force, cruelty, alienation, isolation, abandonment, excommunication) and the motivation for such deployment. Cruelty, as was noted in the piece on everyday sadism, (, November 28, 2022) is ubiquitous, and not only on social media. Normalizing this cruelty, and even idealizing its “power” and the adrenalin high (approximating the orgiastic) has become an integral component in the entertainment menu. The American ethos and culture seems to luxuriate in the deployment of force, including the sophisticated methods and tactics in both the military and the justice system.

Indeed, the American national identity archetype is the “strong ALPHA male” that seems to be the defining image for all public discourse. trump rode to the Oval Office in his perversion of the archetype. And one of his central stump arguments was that he was “fixing” the “carnage” and “draining the swamp,” both phrases that struck the hot buttons of fear and resentment, first of street crime and the dangers of criminal immigrants, and second the alleged tyranny of the Democrats and the government generally.

In a culture obsessed with, if not addicted to, some external “pill” as the “fix” of whatever might be perceived as a personal, or a social illness, replete with agents ready, willing and able (at least in their own mind) to provide the right remedy for the right pain, both literally and metaphorically, we have, as James Hillman has noted, created two buckets of addressing human behaviour that does not comport with our (whomever might be in charge of the discernment of the specific non-compliance): the first bucket is a “medical” bucket, the second is a “legal” bucket.

With respect to individual persons who have contravened some law, rule, regulation or organizational norm, we consider the “problem” based almost exclusively on a series of observable, empirical symptoms that need to be sanctioned. And the sanction is allegedly for the purpose of “correcting” the offender, as well as to warn others against a similar offence. “Teaching them a lesson” is the underlying echo of justification. Similar to the Buddhist “anger/frustration—compassion” model, this “teach them a lesson”, modelled by those in high places of authority and responsibility, in our corporations, our  military, our governments, our churches and our health and social systems.

In the criminal justice system, we hear the word “rehabilitation” bandied about, as the primary publicly-stated goal of the system. Nevertheless, we all know that the statistics of rehabilitation pale in comparison to the graphs of numbers of incarcerated men and women who regress into even more criminal and abusive behaviour.

We all, as life-long-learners, have a portfolio of comments, remarks, criticisms and cautions from our parents and mentors, bosses and peers. The tone and the attitude of those individuals were implicitly and explicitly part of the context of whether and how we “heard” and “listened” and integrated those moments. If they were provocative of an attitude such as “I will prove you wrong” in your assessment of me, we undoubtedly determined to negate the criticism. If they came from a bitter and self-loathing, or a highly needy source, we grew to turn down both the volume and the relevance of what had become cruel projections.

And, indeed, the act of a cruel comment, is often if not almost always, coloured and heard in and through the relationship and the attitude of the perpetrator. It is the surprising source of an allegedly loving parent or spouse, whose need for power and control, even if camouflaged in that chestnut, “for your betterment, I am going to teach you a lesson”….

And here is where and when one’s personal experiences play a role in the interpretation we place on those acts that might be considered cruel, hurtful and debilitating. And, there is and can be no single note struck by any cruelty; sometimes, it is worthy of consideration, even if it hurts at the moment. Trouble is, for most of us, we are neither schooled nor experienced in recognizing this thing called “projection”*.

Not only do we live in a culture (in North America) in which we have an apparently desperate need to be “fixed”, we also live in a culture in which we almost absolutely refuse to acknowledge our errors, especially errors in judgement,   perception, interpretation and especially in the management/supervision/mentoring of other people.

Starting from a perverted concept of a “fallen human being” (original sin) perpetrated and propagated by the church(es), and then enduring a traditional process of ‘being reined in’ in the school system by pedagogues whose need for control exceeds most others in the community (this scribe bears considerable regret and responsibility for this blindness), we also live in a corporate culture in which both efficiency and profit have supplanted effective relationships and long-term human satisfaction, growth and well-being. People in power, thereby, are empowered to exercise “teaching” and “mentoring” concepts that favour the least time (and cost to the budget) and the most available ‘stick’ (and carrot for the occasional reward) in a classical conditioning model of organizational dysfunction.

And, given that millions have acceded to this cultural dynamic, in order both to earn a living and to ‘fit into’ the demanded patterns, we now suffer from a vacuum of health leadership, mentorship and the implicit ‘authority’ and ‘respect’ that is unconsciously awarded to such dysfunctional leadership.

The blatant hypocrisy, in the cry, that we are doing this (imposing cruelty of any form) to teach you a lesson, belies the lesson that is needed to be taught to those cruel leaders. Power and authority, without care and compassion, is, by definition another of the many self-sabotages humans perpetrate on each other and ourselves, every hour in every day at every level in every sector. Rather than considering care and compassion an inordinate cost, they are both highly instrumental in enhancing the bottom line of all for-profit enterprises. First, in order to consider care for workers, one has to get to know them on more than a functional level. They are must more than a “careful front-end-loader operator” for example. They are a brother/sister, a wife/husband, a father/mother, a hobbyist/athlete, an aspirant and idealist/mentor for colleagues…in short, each of us is far more than a widget in the organizational cogs and gears.

Compassion, too, as separated from empathy, offers consideration from a detached and professional perspective, and the benefits of such an approach devolve to both the agent and the recipient. Again, far from being an excessively soft and redundant manner in which to perceive and to operate a leadership post, compassion signifies a healthy, mature, integrated and aspiring leader’s fundamental character. (The “hard-power” of the alpha male model, too often adopted too by ambitious women executives, in the false belief that in order to climb the ladder of the hierarchy, they have to “out-male” the men.)

Impunity for cruelty, the glossed-over eyes, ears and attitudes that too often greet blatant acts of cruelty, (we do not wish to get involved in anything that might be messy, legal, or demanding our witness) seems to have rendered many acts of human-to-human cruelty to be referred by some ‘outside’ third party, as if it were resolvable only through a simulated court hearing. Admitting we are wrong, as something we each have to account for, and also to atone for, is not a pathway to chaos. It is a pathway to begin the restoration of the dependence we all have on the truth.

Indeed, shirking responsibility is just another way of deceiving both ourselves, and in our wildest dreams, the other who might punish, sanction, admonish, or even discipline us appropriately.

Critical parent-malignant child modelling of relationships among and between supervisors and their mentees, is not only malicious; it is profoundly counter-intuitive. The model itself, smacks of cruelty, blindness and narrow and narcissistic self-interest on the part of those in power. There are a myriad of nuanced positions between the extreme of ‘critical parent-child’ and “buddy-and-friend” that offer multiple opportunities for both mentor and mentee to grow and flourish.


*Projection is when someone tries putting their feelings, flaws, and other quirks toward someone else, usually someone they argue with. Someone who projects will shift the blame to ignore their problems. A politician, for example, will use projection to distract from their flaws and shift the blame….the biggest reason, conscious or unconscious, that a person projects is that they can’t admit they were wrong about something. (from

Monday, November 28, 2022

Reflections on "everyday sadism" on the harmless

 We found the following essay in the (Trinity College Dublin) website, posted on September 25, 2020, in an essay entitled, “From Psychopaths to ‘everyday sadists’: why do humans harm the harmless?

The piece opens with these words:

Humans are the glory and the scum of the universe, concluded the French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, in 1658. Little has changed. We love and we loathe; we help and we harm; we reach out a hand and we stick in the knife. We understand if someone lashes out in retaliation or self-defence. But when someone hurts the harmless, we ask: “How could you?”

Humans typically do things to get pleasure or avoid pain. For most of us, hurting others causes us to feel their pain. And we don’t like this feeling. This suggests two reasons people may harm the harmless-either they don’t feel the others’ pain or they enjoy feeling the others’ pain. Another reasons people harm the harmless is because they nonetheless see a threat. Someone who doesn’t imperil your body ro wallet can still threaten your social status. This helps explain otherwise puzzling actions, such as when people harm others who help them financially….

The popular imagination associates sadism (those who feel other people’s pain and enjoy it, at least they do until it is over, when they may feel bad) with torturers and murderers. Yet there is also the less extreme, but more widespread, phenomenon of every day sadism. Everyday sadists get pleasure from hurting others or watching their suffering. They are likely to enjoy gory films, find fights exciting and torture interesting. They are rare, but not rare enough. Around 6% of undergraduate students admit getting pleasure from hurting others. The everyday sadist may be an internet troll or a school bully. In online roleplaying games they are likely to be the ‘griefer’ who spoils the game for others. Everyday sadists are drawn to violent computer games. And the more they play, the more sadistic they become…..Some speculate sadism is an adaptation that helped us slaughter animals when hunting. Others propose it helped people gain power. Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli once suggested that ‘the times, not men, create disorder’. Consistent with this, neuroscience suggest sadism could be a survival tactic triggered by times becoming tough. When certain foods become scarce, our levels of the neurotransmitter, serotonin, fall. This fall makes us more willing to harm others because harming becomes more pleasurable.

Research shows that if someone breaks social norms, our brains treat their faces as less human. This makes it easier for us to punish people who violate norms of behaviour. It is a sweet sentiment to think that if we see someone as human then we won’t hurt them. It is also a dangerous delusion. The psychologist Paul Bloom argues our worst cruelties may rest on not dehumanising people. People may hurt others precisely because they recognise them as human beings who don’t want to suffer pain, humiliation or degradation. For example, the Nazi Party Dehumanised Jewish people by calling them vermin and lice. Yet then Nazis also humiliated tortured and murdered Jews precisely because they saw them as humans who would be degraded and suffer from such treatment.

Do-gooder derogation

Sometimes people will even harm the helpful. Imagine you are playing an economic game in which you and other players have the chance to invest in a group fund. The more money is paid into it, the more it pays out. And the fund will pay out money to all players whether they have invested or not. At the end of the game, you can pay to punish other players for how much they chose to invest. To do so, you give up some of your earnings and money is taken away from the player of your choice. In short, you can be spiteful. Some players chose to punish others who invested little or nothing in the group fund, Yet some will pay to punish players who invested more in the group fund then they did. Such acts seem to make no sense. Generous players give you a greater pay-out—why would you dissuade them? The phenomenon is called “do-gooder derogation”. It can be found around the world in hunter-gatherer societies, successful hunters are criticized for catching a big animal even though their catch means everyone gets more heat. Hillary Clinton may have suffered do-gooder derogation as a result of her rights-based 2016 US Presidential Election Campaign. Do-gooder derogation exists because of our counter-dominant tendencies. A less generous player in the economic game may feel that a more generous player will be seen by others as a preferable collaborator. The more generous person is threatening to become dominant. As the French writer Voltaire put it, the best is the enemy of the good. Yet there is a hidden upside of do-gooder derogation. Once we have pulled down the do-gooder, we are more open to their message. One study found that allowing people to express a dislike of vegetarians led them to become less supporting of eating meat. Shooting, crucifying or failing to elect the messenger may encourage their message to be accepted.

The future of cruelty

In the film, Whiplash, a music teacher uses cruelty to encourage greatness in one of his students. We may recoil at such tactics. Yet the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche thought we had become to averse to such cruelty. For Nietzsche, cruelty allowed a teacher to burn a critique into another, for the other person’s own good. People could also be cruel to themselves to help become the person they wanted to be. Nietzsche felt suffering cruelty could help develop courage, endurance and creativity. Should we be more willing to make both others and ourselves suffer to develop virtue?

Arguably not. We now know the potentially appalling long-term effects of suffering  cruelty from others, including damage to both physical and mental health. The benefits of being compassionate towards oneself, father than treating oneself cruelly, are also increasingly recognised. And the idea that we must suffer to grow is questionable. Positive life events, such as falling in love, having children and achieving cherished goals can lead to growth.

Teaching through cruelty invites abuses of power and selfish sadism. Yet Buddhism offers an alternative--wrathful compassion. Here we act from love to confront others to protect them from their greed, hatred and fear. Life can be cruel, truth can be cruel, but we can choose not to be.

For many of us, perhaps most, we have been observers, deployers and recipients of acts of power throughout our lives. As young children, we learned the cautions and sanctions that ‘kept us in line’, both literally and metaphorically. We “knew” what was expected from collecting and curating the signals of both safety and tolerance, respect and honour and their opposites from those who raised us. In school, a similar kind of enculturation took place. We all knew who the school bully was and who was the most likely target of the bullying. In our homes, we all knew ‘which parent wore the pants’ as the cliché had it. As we embarked on part-time jobs, we encountered various models of supervision, direction, coaching and mentoring. One physics teacher of my acquaintance, while delivering an exam paper with a grade he considered less than adequate, remarked, in front of the whole class, “When are you going to start to work in this course?” His inverse psychology, absorbed silently will the full import of its social ‘sting’, prompted the student to raise the grade considerably on the next set of exams. Another supervisor, believing that the graduate student had left completing the assignments for the degree too long to be completed before deadline, provoked another surge of activity, to prove him wrong.

Is this kind of inverse psychology an expression of wrathful compassion, in the Buddhist example above? Parental disapproval, of even disappointment, expressed in a sarcastic manner, without inflicting a bruise, nevertheless leaves a psychic imprint with a long half-life.* In the parenting and in the education enterprise, even a frown from a respected mentor can and will have the effect of either motivating a mentee or perhaps turning off all motivation, depending on the psychic and emotional strength of the mentee. Never intended as a ‘cruelty,’ such a frown (physical or verbal, or even in an over-heard conversation of criticism) lingers in the memory of the aspiring student. These frowns, and their opposite, the smiles of approval, silently and imperceptibly imprint messages of approval and disapproval on those youth whose ‘skins’ are especially thin. Students in the ‘arts’ and ‘theatre’ and ‘music’ concentrations seem generally to be among the more ‘thin-skinned’ especially among those whose preferences run to the physical, the athletic and the physically competitive.

In a western religious sense, among Christians, the notion of suffering is an integral component of the life of ‘discipleship’. And those who are expected to inflict cruelty are deemed ‘sons and daughters of Satan’ as a way of constructing metaphoric moats of protection around the righteousness of believers. Diving the universe into believers and heathens is another example of the royal divide and conquer model of ruling. The model engenders comfort and approval for the insiders, and demonstrates a serious objective to convert the non-believers, as the principal role of the believer. Categorizing specific behaviours as “sinful” and “ungodly” and therefore worthy of exclusion from the community, whether formally or informally, socially and politically and psychologically, is considered by some as ‘wrathful compassion’ perhaps, in their justification of their exclusivity. However, one wonders if such a characterization is justified in the minds and the hearts of those on whom the ‘edification’ and patronizing is addressed or imposed?

The existence of cruelty and harm to the harmless has a religious history and a legacy of bloodshed that has been absorbed in the blotters of many battlefields. The textbooks and libraries, too, have become paper blotters of the ink used in recording, documenting, analysing and theorizing about those acts of cruelty, many of them justified as “according to the will of God”. We have been ‘steeped’ like hot tea in the degrees of suffering and death that have been inflicted on harmless, innocent and virtually defenseless people.

This is the story, on the human level, in Ukraine, for the last year plus. And while NATO members, for the most part, have been sending military equipment including trainers to aid Ukrainians in their resistance to the tyranny of this cruelty, the cruelty against the harmless continues.

Inside Russia, itself, just last week, laws condemning all signs of support for the LGBTQ+ community were declared unlawful, in another act of cruelty to the harmless. Terrorist cells in Africa are burning and killing harmless men, women and children, for their own sinister need for power in the name of some ‘religion’ or belief system that not only permits such acts of cruelty, but endorses and rewards them.

It seems time, if not long past time, for the human race to begin to confront the individual, everyday acts of cruelty that are imposed on various objects of harmlessness, the children, the ordinary individual who just goes about his or her daily life without seeking to hurt or harm anyone. While the criminologists and the legal establishment seek to adjudicate individual cases of malfeasance and injury and death, most of these cases the result of everyday sadism on steroids, the rest of us have to find ways to say ‘no’ to those acts of deep psychic and emotional hurt that are inflicted with impunity, because we never want to be seen and considered “weak” by protesting or resisting.

Those in pain, in the middle of personal life crises, especially, will be among those seeking, most likely unconsciously, to inflict pain and hurt on those whose only interest and motivation is to be available as support. And that very purpose, itself, can be a target on the back of those who seek to help.

We have a very long path to trod, as a species, if we are to not merely wrestle with the cruelty that is endemic among us, but also to understand our own complicity in the confusion and the impunity of the barely recognized incidents in which cruelty is inflicted on the harmless.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Proxemics, implications in a legalistic universe

 The notion of communication, as we know, is hardly restricted to the kind of language we use. Concepts like literalism, nominalism, and efficiency in our dialogues, both personal and professionally, have some value and some considerable limits. Poetic, archetypal, imaginative language, while very different, not only has multiple barely perceptible, yet deeply embedded limitations, both in social acceptance as well as in personal comfort and practice.

Ideational notions, however, are also inevitably operating in a literal ‘space’ concept. And the pandemic, followed by the return to work, have both shone a light on the concept of the space one offers to others, in a professional workplace. carries a piece by Ashley Brown, August 6, 2020, in which the concept of “space” in the workplace is introduced and described. Brown writes:

Interpersonal space, or the amount of physical space between people, tells us a lot of personal space about our environments and culture. As we return to the office in a socially distanced way, we’ll have to renegotiate our understanding or personal space—both our own and our space in relation to others. The study of interpersonal space is known as proxemics. One important aspect of it is that’s it’s nonverbal. We don’t go around asking strangers if we can pass them; we judge from their body language how to best maneuver through their space as necessary….Classical proxemics theory9 was started in the 1960’s by anthropologist Edward T. Hall. He classified four degrees of interpersonal distance or degrees of proximity that we experience. 1) Public distance (between 12-15 feet) you must speak louder to be heard, and it’s more difficult to maintain eye contact, so the connection between two people is minimal. 2) Social distance (between 4-12 feet) relies on visual and auditory cues to form a connection, since you’re still too far apart to touch or perceive body heat. 3) Personal distance (between 1.5-4 feet) is kept during interactions with friends. Here, vision is clear, eye contact is strong, and conversation flows easily. 4) Intimate distance (between 0-1.5 feet), the aura of a person forms a stronger sense of connection than visual or auditory cues. Body heat and olfactory senses add to the connection. The study of proxemics is important because we need proximity to form bonds and communicate effectively. Many would say proximity is essential for mental health. In managing the distance between ourselves and others, we control the level of exposure to another person that we’re comfortable experiencing…The six-feet distance recommended by the Center for Disease Control has become the norm in the U.S. and has impacted every corner or our public spaces, from parks to grocery stores.

Of course, group leaders and managers are formally trained in the theory of proxemics, and then expected to orient their workers to similar guidelines, expectations, and the inevitable complaints about ‘invasion’ of personal space that will occur. Having established, under an umbrella regime of rewards and punishments (classical conditioning) we are fully immersed in a workplace culture that recognizes personal boundaries, and then goes about both training and sanctioning the observance of those boundaries. Rules, and guidelines, seem, on this issue, as well as on so many others, to have replaced an inherent sensibility that we could call respect, that previous generations would never have been taught. Reading body language, for example, is not a skill that is included in the formal curricula of most high schools; it might find a lesson or two in a health and physical education class, depending on the sensibilities of the instructor.

Reading body language, however, is another of those skills that separate men from women, the former being almost “illiterate” in the language, while the latter are intimately familiar with its import and impact. Physical gestures, facial movements, including miniscule movements of the eye brows, or even a faced turned away while one is speaking, or staring off into space, or folding arms or legs…these are all part of the body language that, depending on the ethos of our families of origin, were somehow, almost ethereally and through osmosis, conveyed to some at a high level of importance, and to others as less relevant. Body language has been a subject of court-room practice, in the legal profession and in the prosecutorial profession for decades. Detailed examination of one’s eye movements, for example, has been deemed to be one of the indicators of truth-telling or lying. Dentists, too, have a keen eye, for the moment when a patient experiences pain at the touch of a drill onto a nerve in the jaw. As teachers, while not formally trained, we become familiar with the facial and body movements of our students, if only after years of decoding those cues, as indicators of attentiveness, boredom, listlessness, or even resentment and anger. Class participation, a sine qua non of the effective learning environment, relies on the level of body language literacy of the instructor.

In discussing the “proxemics” theory and practice with neighbours recently, I heard an insightful woman remark, “All of those boundary issues about personal space were matters of manners, when we were growing up.” No one taught us specifically about how to behave when in the company of others, nor to distinguish between individuals of rank from those of family or close friends. “We just knew” was the way she expressed the cultural imprinting. Today, of course, with the cultural klieg light on ‘rights’ and the invasion of rights (read space) by others whose ‘manners’ crossed a line for those offended, organizations are training workers, volunteers and especially managers in the social ethics of maintain proper space decorum. And should that space not be honoured, there are implicit and explicit sanctions to be exercised.

Body language, the core of our puppy’s communication devices, is expressly suited to her breed, her mood, her adults and her attraction to any one of several specific toys. And, both my wife and I are ‘learning’ what it is she is trying to say. Unable to provide more than our own body language, including our voice tone, our eye movements, and our ‘mood’, all of which she ‘gets’ far more completely than we ‘get’ her, our learning curve seems to outstrip her’s.

On a personal note, a first dramatic encounter with ‘personal space’ came in a first meeting with a retiring cleric, following a thirty-six-year tenure in the same parish. Without shaking hands, as I had expected, this man, when encountering a summer student intern stood some ten feet away, coldly and calculatingly examining every inch of my person, and, in a tone evocative of one of the entombed, cyber voices, dismissed any attempt to engage in a conversation about the parish he was leaving and to which I had just been assigned.  Not only was there a resistance to provide anything by way of orientation, support and mentoring; the coldness of the encounter remains as a signature of not only this man but of his shepherding of this parish for nearly forty years.

The notion that workers and volunteers are being ‘formally trained’ in the lessons  of proxemics, on the surface, may seem both wise and prudent, as well as preventative of future conflict within the workplace. However, such training results from a kind of failed consciousness, respect, and those basic manners our neighbour was referring to. The training also acknowledges the existence of its own need, and the degree of control of professional space which has grown by leaps and bounds in the last half-century.

Rules, regulations, boundaries and the opportunities to complain formally over whatever transgression might have transpired, changes all spaces into ‘conflict zones based on the premise that professionals will over-step, and also that those in charge have a duty and a responsibility to eliminate or prevent such transgressions from happening in the first place. Searching for ‘perfection’ in the realm of human relationships, in the web of complex organizational structures and functions, while perhaps being considered highly ideal and morally and ethically preferential to the occurrences of transgressions, seems to this scribe, analogous to the “banned books” of yesteryear. When the church sought to prevent their members and adherents from reading certain specific books, to prevent their being ‘morally negatively influence by the content,’ such books became the most in demand of all the available titles.

There is an obvious counter-intuitive aspect to the prescription, by those in authority, to control those over whom they have some responsibility, of too many rules, regulations, boundaries, and expected ‘constraints’ that, predictably and inevitably, will result in ‘incident reports’ and the necessary procedures for follow-up investigations, hearings, rulings, sanctions and eventually even dismissals. However, while the anthropologist’s theory has eminent application in the study of various cultures, including their respective manners of treating each other, the micro-management of the way people behave, as a path toward “healthy workplace ethos” is obviously fraught with peril.

And in addition to the costs of the monitoring, and the investigation and hearings and rulings, there is the fundamental notion of the critical parent (Freud’s super ego) attempting to rule the miscreant ‘child’ (the ordinary worker). Individual responsibility, discretion, discussion, confrontation of a human-to-human kind is transferred to the ‘system’s’ hierarchy. And while there is every reason to desire a workplace free from personal conflict, there is also a reason to expect individuals to own their own part in each encounter. Creating a structural framework in which victims, many of whom are already victims in other parts of their lives, are enabled and emboldened to file formal complaints, and to trigger a process of redress, based on their unique, personal, private and neurotic perceptions of the actions and attitudes of others, is not only demanding a new army of referees, (for which we have not recruited) but also expecting human, professional relationships to be enhanced by such rules and regulation and specific boundaries.

And all of the vagaries of the subjective, hierarchical, personal and unconscious perceptions and motivations (strong positive feelings from one individual to another of a different rank, for example) to come into play. Legalizing human relationships, like ethically and morally condemning romantic and sexual relationships outside of marriage between a man and a woman, as the church has done for centuries, is not only contrary to nature but also unsustainable. Deferring to the legal process, whether through the actual court system, or by imitation within the organizational norms, is another way of vacuuming up all of the human encounters into legally tolerable or legally intolerable.

Removing trust, by instituting such boundaries as those defined by proxemics, and removing personal agency in the resolution of any potential incursions into one’s space, or into the kind of language that this organization ‘prohibits’ effectively renders the culture a legal battleground.

And the tactics of scape-goating, blaming, deception, distraction, dissembling, nepotism, emotional preference that lie at the heart of many of our perceived and real inequalities are rushed into play, just as they are in the legal system. We have already over-loaded our legal systems with cases, many of them unwarranted, specious and frivolous. No doubt, in adhering to a similar model for organizations, we impose a similar template of dysfunction, and ironically, remove or deflect the option of personal responsibility, not only of the potential perpetrators but also of the recipients of the infractions, to learn from the tension and discomfort.

How many workplaces, for example, have ‘ombudsmen/women in place as conflict resolution professionals, to intercept the potential eruption of ‘boundary cases’ among workers? Unions, too, have become effectively emasculated from appropriate and schooled training and deployment of such ‘ombudspersons’ in the workplaces in which they operate.

Rules, in a classical conditioning model, with carrots and sticks, implemented and monitored by other humans, in a model reminiscent of the elementary school, are not only insulting to their ‘workers’ and their supervisors. And, while proving again that Hegel was right when he declared that what we learn from history is that we do not learn from history, we also stunt opportunities for personal growth, learning and conflict resolutions, not to mention we generate a hierarchy who thinks and believes that they are doing right to construct and to implement such processes.

As the Dr. Seuss’s Grinch, or Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge might say, Bah-humbug!

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Exploring the gulf between the literal/nominal and the poetic/archetypal/imaginative languages and culture

It seems s omewhat glib to suggest a move in our shared language and culture from the literal/nominal to the poetic, the archetypal and the imaginative. Seeing the self, and others, from the perspective of ‘soul,’ not a thing, but a lens through which human beings can be more fully grasped and appreciated, seems antithetical to the notion of the human as agent, as consumer, as transactional partner. There are several steep hills to climb in order to begin such a tectonic transformation.

In a culture dominated by a dysfunctional masculinity of ‘alpha’ dominance, manifesting a deeply flawed, insecure, neurotic and desperate masculine psyche, determined to hold sway, our public discourse gravitates to matters of ‘hot-button’ conflict, competition and championing of winners and degradation of losers. Winners take home bundles of loot, regardless of what form that loot takes: votes, sales, promotions, trophies, jewellery, trophy partners (wives and husbands). Losers, on the other hand, are shamed into invisibility, after undergoing a barrage of scorn, contempt, often violence and, ironically, morphing into the subjects of highly saleable and even more highly seductive entertainment, infamy.

And then, the ‘self-help’ industry ramps up into high gear with aphorisms of identity that remind us all that everyone has, in some form and at some time, gone through a tunnel of darkness, turbulence, upheaval, and even self-sabotage. And that darkness, analogized in some quarters as the ‘dark night of the soul’ in which many have faced our deepest ‘demons’ and encountered a different and more nuanced and shared perception and attitude of how life seems to unfold, lies at the heart of philosophies, religions, and spiritual disciplines.

Another impediment to the shift from a literal, nominal, symptomatically-driven, instant-gratification-obsessed conversational norm is displayed on a screen that recently popped up on my facebook feed:

“People are so used to others being indirect and phony that clear communication appears aggressive.” Not only, as Sandy Kaper noted in response, “fake sincerity is passive-aggressive’, but it seems that the alpha” power model has slipped, been driven, exploded, or exorcised (excised?) from our “politically correct” society, and magically morphed into a kind of faux-speak. This kind of faux-speak differs from the ‘war is peace’ ‘newspeak’ in Orwell’s 1984. It is almost more subtle, slippery and even sophisticated and less detectable, if no less detestable.

Embedded in this “faux-speak is the obsession with menu’s, lists of advice, steps to accomplish a personal goal, and organizational goal. Likely derived from such modalities as the doctor’s prescription, which by definition is directed to the most available, most effective and most reliable “pill” (process, exercise, diet, avoidance, instrument/device) that will ‘remediate’ the problem. “If it has worked for me, then it will work for you,” seems to be a guiding principle. I, too, am guilty of this trap. When a postal worker who serviced our neighbourhood complained about back pain, given the years of walking, with loaded satchels over her shoulders, in all kinds of weather for decades, I immediately asked if she had acquired “Dr. Ho’s pain therapy device”. The look on her face, while attentive, seemed somewhat withdrawn, given that I am no medical practitioner, that I have absolutely no credentials for my question, and that, as a customer, I had no business in even ‘invading’ her space with the question. Awkwardly, somewhat sheepishly, and even somewhat withdrawn, I attempted to bring the conversation to a close, diplomatically, without making direct reference to either her or my awkwardness.

Indirect speech can be depicted as cunning, analogous to opening the front door a crack, or peering through a peep-hole, to ensure that we are safe, before taking the next stop. Anticipating negative encounters, rather than the simple openness that previously characterized much of our social exchanges, drives us away from each other, as the starting place. As a pattern, it also encases direct speech, direct questions, and direct emotional responses in a memory archive as well as in a psyche safety-deposit box that defines such speech as “aggressive, intense, too much, and extremely offensive”. To be considered “mature,” and “reasonable” and “appropriate” and “safe” as opposed, for example to eccentric, too old, too ideological, too intense, too committed, too powerful and thereby dismissable as dangerous and threatening, one must engage in indirect, and a kind of word-play of a dance in order to be offered the “keys” to the other’s attention and respect.

A conversation with an educator at the board level illustrates: As a former now retired teacher of English, a male, and one who had considerable evidence over quarter-century of male adolescents’ resistance to studying the intricacies, intimacies and subtleties of novels, plays, poems and even essays, (too wordy, too much bull shit, exams that needed only one’s opinions so one need not study to prepare, more appropriate for the girls in class….these are some of the epithets that expressed those attitudes), I had a deep, personal, intellectual, emotional and political interest in what was happening to the curriculum, as seen and designed from the perspective of making literature more accessible, more relevant and more appealing to young male adolescents. When I candidate for board of education knocked at our door, I broached the subject with her; she graciously recommended that I meet with a superintendent, an appointment which she would gladly arrange. It was at that appointment that I encountered the poverty of imagination, resonance, creativity and even the reductionism that this male displayed, in dismissing me. “All we have to do is introduce more and more technology into the classroom in order to appeal to the young men. I recognize your intensity, but I have to go to another appointment.” Conversation closed!

Oh, but I have not forgotten over this last decade-plus. Not only was the ‘prescription’ so infantile and insulting both to me and to the young men in those hundreds of classrooms over which this “administrator” had influence. The fear and the anxiety in which I was encountered, and then summarily dismissed was and is astounding. “Respecting my intensity of commitment” to the cause of education young men in Canada, was a single-bullet by which to barely acknowledge my presence in the office. That man was neither professional nor engaging. He was, in my view, symbolic of the kind of administrative “career-building” technocrat whose willingness and openness to a conversation that might explore the complexities of the issue. Of course, I acknowledge that I was neither indirect nor phony in my presentation. I did not engage in small-talk, believing that there was a very limited number of minutes that had been set aside for this appointment (a foreign voter, recommended by an ambitious candidate for board office, without a referring commendation from someone the administrator knew and trusted). Getting straight to the point, I undoubtedly sabotaged my advocacy for young men.

And I also learned, first-hand, that I neither wanted nor would be offered an audience inside the“hierarchy” in this board, or any other in Ontario where such infantilism prevails(?).

Regardless of how hard we work, and how disciplined is our adherence to plans and goals, “life” has a way of interrupting those plans, and those extrinsic adventures. Those “interruptions” have the potential of either waking a new perception, attitude and belief or perhaps of further ‘deadening’ an already limp and flattened spirit. Moments of crisis, for both men and women, intrude on whatever ‘domestic, professional, artistic, ‘structure’ we have tried to create. And how men and women respond to those moments of crisis can be, and usually is very different from one gender to the other. (Octogenarians, however, like this scribe, have no insight on how the LGBTQ communities respond to such moments.)

Stoicism, a source of ‘virtue ethics,’ argues that a sage would be emotionally resilient to misfortune. It teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions. The model of ‘self-control’ has taken a place of almost sacral significance, given the many links to the stoic ideals that have been merged with the thinking of the Christian church. And, in a world in which reductionisms are thrown around like ‘sell lines’ often even weaponized, in order to serve as combat devices in moral and religious conflicts, (think the conflict over a woman’s right to choose versus the right to life movement) the ‘virtue’ of self-control clearly triumphs over the messy and unpredictable exposure of intense emotions, regardless of their source and symptoms. And, while it is a ‘meme’ that seems to be thawing, more slowly that are the Arctic ice caps, men, generally have held fast to the ‘rigging’ of repressed emotions.

 Self-control, by definition and historic practice, also requires concealment of those deep emotions from the public, especially in those theatres like the courts, the classroom, the operating and emergency rooms, and even the sanctuaries. So deeply embedded in conventional, normal and honoured North American culture is this ‘self-control’ especially among men, (many of whom also denigrate women for their excessive display of emotions). Ironic exceptions, however, erupt occasionally. A professional female, with whom I attempted to negotiate a business purchase, defined her existence in these terms: “We have to put on our armour in order to operate in the world, and we can remove it only in the privacy of our homes!” Turing the business (as well as the political, academic, scientific, and by inference the domestic) arenas into competitions, requiring the wearing of armour, along with the strategies and tactics of combat, is however, ‘no way to run a railroad’. The fundamental notion that enemies are everywhere, that combat is the metaphor of choice, that strategy and tactics are at the heart of all negotiations, while useful in emergencies, is also highly dysfunctional as a model of collaboration, compromise, collegiality, and common purpose.

By definition, such an over-arching modus operandi, is self-fulfilling and also self-defeating. And, it is a very tiny step from combat, repressed emotions and the pursuit of the brass (or golden) ring, to the ‘zero-sum game’ in which my win means your loss, and vice versa. The Freudian concept of “ego” and the over-weening need for recognition, from others, that is bandied about as one of the ‘currencies’ in which management is expected to deal, has become a management mantra. Indeed, massaging egos, colloquially dubbed, ‘hand holding’ in many instances, is another sign of the prevalence, the dependence we now share on the transactional, competitive model of organizing our businesses, our organizations, and also our definitions of our identities.

Crisis management, as a model of social organization, while significant as is the Emergency Room in a hospital, anticipates and even defines how the culture perceives and designs and diagnoses its needs, and its prescriptions. Little wonder then that, in such a culture, endorsed and disseminated by the media, consciously and unconsciously ‘worn’ as ‘fashion’ and convention, we tolerate the expression of deep emotions in the event of serious and shared tragedies. However, tragedies themselves have come to be considered ‘norms’ on so many fronts. A litmus test for this development is found in the DSM 5, in which grief is defined as a mental illness requiring therapy.
Crises demand micro-management skills, strategies, tactics and detachment. Emotional enmeshment, in those situations, especially from those charged with responsibility for return to ‘normalcy’ whatever that might be, would be and is counter-intuitive. Those skills, strategies, tactics and the emotional detachment, however, are not innate, intrinsic or defined by gender. They are essential to the effective addressing of the specific exigency.

Navigating in a world in which intensity and directness is considered offensive, and phony is considered diplomatic and sophisticated, while a somewhat simplistic dichotomy, especially focussed on the impediments thwarting a significant shift from simple diagnoses, to even simpler prescriptions, for men and women living and breathing in oxygen-deprived (metaphorically) air and ethos, paints a picture of a very steep and craggy mountain, enveloped in deep fog, outside the range of wireless and GPS. So the environment is dangerous, solitary, disconnected and offers little hint of cutting through the trail-cutting among the granite of stereotypes, intellectual repetition and fear of change.

There are so many “files” that suffer from indolence and indifference, and the language/perception/attitude one lies at the core of them all.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Language as a determinative of perception, attitude, and potential

 Cognitive dissonance is defined as a mental conflict that occurs when one’s beliefs don’t line up with one’s actions, an uncomfortable state of mind when someone has contradictory values, attitudes or perspective about the same thing. A smoker knows his habit causes lung cancer and still takes more and more cigarettes ‘to calm his anxiety.’ Some of the ‘adjustments’ to this conflict are rationalization decisions, avoiding arguments, concealing their attitudes/beliefs from others or even ignore medical advice. (abstracted from

Is it cognitive dissonance, when a nation, for example the United States, beats drums, blows trumpets and sings hymns to peace, while holding the largest and most technically advanced military arsenal in history? Is that ‘dissonance’ merely rationalized as “national security” in a dangerous world? Or is it, rather a form of self-deception that has been embedded in the national psyche as ‘normal’ and then propagated through various national initiatives like “Memorial Day” and “Veterans Day” and celebration of military training in elite academies like West Point? Dominance, in hard power, however, has other implications that tend to go ‘under the radar’ of the national psyche.

For instance, ‘top gun’ and ‘top rung’ and ‘star’ performances all trickle down from a culture that is obsessed with dominance. And, in order to be dominant, in any area, one has to simplify, ignore or rationalize all ambiguities, frame the universe in ‘rifle’ shots, while dismissing all nuances as distractions. Essential to all forms of simplification and reduction, is a language of literalism#, and nominalism* that comes to dominate the cultural landscape.

For nearly six years, the United States has watched, even obsessed over the words, actions, policies and attitudes and values of one individual who, for a time occupied the Oval Office. Observed and reported on from a variety of angles and perspectives, as narcissist, liar, manipulator, even conspiracy theorist and propagator, abuser, betrayer, misogynist, homophobe, racist, fraudster, tax-evader, mob-boss, tyrant-sycophant, performer/entertainer/salesman, media-ratings magnet and, for his cultist adherents, rock star and national saviour, superman. And whatever words have been deployed to depict and to analyse this person and his role and impact on American history, he has continually, consistently and persistently, dominated the public discourse, even much of the public mind.

Seeing themselves through the lens of this single human being’s performances, on twitter, at the podium, on the escalator, emerging from Airforce One, his ‘footprints’ have embedded themselves into the most heinous (and for some most heroic) projections that he magnetized from the collective unconscious across the country.

Slipping past and through attempts to impeach, to derail, to defeat and to rein in his most dangerous instincts, this single person continues to defy all entrapments even after spawning overt and covert insurrection and sedition, and has just recently declared his candidacy for the presidency in 2024. Lawyers for this historic and dystopic narrative are hired, fired, lied to, betrayed, imprisoned and professionally decimated and destroyed. Message merchants sign on only to awaken to their own innocence, ignorance and naivety, and then depart to tell of their transformative insight.

Having learned the secrets of “the deal” as a ‘developer’ in the ‘city that never sleeps’, this man has been engaged in a thespian drama of his own apprenticeship/writing/acting/seducing/manipulating for over three-quarters of a century. It is not only money and social status that are his obsessions; the real obsession/fixation is his insatiable appetite for attention and control. And, tragically, those legal laws and agencies constructed to prevent such persons from conducting business, politics, academics, athletics or any other enterprise in such a manner that he has ‘mastered’ have been inadequate to stop him. Learning and then enacting each and every loophole, escape hatch, delay tactic, subterfuge and deception known and available, this fraudster has apparently tricked the ‘system’ while exposing himself at the level of individual consciousness and perception.


Apopis (was) the ancient Egyptian demon of chaos, who had the form of a serpent and, as the foe of the sun god Re, represented all that was outside the ordered cosmos. Although many serpents symbolized divinity and royalty, Apopis threatened the underworld and symbolized evil. Each night Apopis encountered Re at a particular hour in the sun god’s ritual journey through the underworld in hi divine bark. Seth, who rode as guardian in the front of Re’s bark, attacked him with a spear and slew him, but the next night Apopis, who could not be permanently subdued, was there again to attack Re. The Egyptians believed that the kind could help maintain the order of the world and assist Re by performing rituals against Apopis.

History has been confronting evil tyrants for centuries, through ‘rituals’ and through military conflicts, through criminal courts, assassinations, and yet the world continues to fail to rein in such men. The argument that both good and evil are inherent in each human, does not qualify as our shared rationalization for failing to bring these men to their own demise. The argument that ‘the establishment’ by definition is evil incarnate (or ‘woke’ or fraudulent or a cabal, or child-molesters or ….) is merely a projection from the one side onto the other, as a blatantly transparent transposition of the “attack hot-button words’ used by their enemies against them. The reliance on the legal definitions, requirements and procedures exclusively to bring this latest iteration of tyranny to heel, however, evokes and even prolongs more of the same kind of strategic and tactical manoeuvring on both sides that defies resolution.

And defying resolution, in order to keep this ‘game’ going, is precisely what this individual is determined to do. So long as his out-manoeuvring escapes the snare of the courts and the prisons, and thereby keeps him in the headlines, knowing as he does that his apprenticeship in voodoo sinister deception far outstrips the imaginations of those who have so far designed and written the laws to prevent such evil, this game will continue. Being one-step ahead of a legal system that moves more like a glacier (before global warming and climate change) offers timing opportunities that evoke images of pollywogs in spring streams.

And so, while the game unfolds, all of the inherent, unconscious, previously unleashed anger and resentments against all forms of order, government, constitutional democracy and its institutions from the hinterland is given not only ‘cover’ but actual seductive magnetic release. “There are good people on both sides” and “Proud Boys stand by and stand ready” are only two of the epithets of open encouragement even public recruitment of the forces of white supremacy, lawlessness and, in the light of conventional public order, anarchy.

Any argument, as has been delivered in the Vatican by people like Steve Bannon, that this presidency and all of the strategies and tactics it and its people deploy are aimed at preserving “western, Christian, white. European/American, culture” against the perceived enemies of immigrants, blacks, indigenous, Jews, and LGBTQ+ minorities, including those whose political and ideological interests, beliefs and attitudes support these ‘invaders’ has to be seen, considered and defined as malevolent, racist, sexist, imperialist, colonialist and tyrannical. And what’s more, the tentacles of the former occupant of the Oval Office, reach out to, and indeed attach themselves to other tyrants like Vladimir Putin who considers the ‘west’ to be his and Russia’s enemy. Similarly, Viktor Orban, in Hungary, has parallel attitudes and positions, as do other right-wing nationalist political voices like Marie LePin in France.

For the United States to deploy the Department of Justice, as well as the National Security and Intelligence institution, as their primary ‘forces’ in the conflict between an internal candidate for the presidency and his minions and his international apparatchiks, however, will continue to smother the mass media coverage, into their literalisms and their nominalisms and protract the tragedy. Public discourse, and even private kitchen-table conversations are saturated with the common sense “consciousness” and cognitive awareness that this person and his cult are a danger not only to the American democracy, but to the world at large.

And one of the risks in the way this drama is playing out is that, while the man and his minions continue to slip through the grasp of the “law”, they and their millions are growing increasingly vengeful, angry and unbalanced in their beliefs and perceptions of truth, reality and public order. Public bills to impeach Biden, for example, as Marjorie Taylor Green has already announced she will do on Monday, November 21, 2022, given the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, is only adding fuel to the fire of entropy inside the United States, while also contributing to the discombobulation of the wider world community as it fails to grapple fully, substantively and immediately with the ravages of rising temperatures everywhere.

There are several changes to the national project to derail this sinister, demagogic, anarchist threat and they could begin with a revision of the language/perception from literalism/nominalism to the archetypal/symbolic in both the media and the democratic voices/forces. The public is not only capable of making such a transition; it is being starved by not being offered its nuanced, abstract, ambiguous and numinous overtones. At the human level, each person is more than a widget of production/revenue/income/vote/cost in the social contract. And to consider this shift into a more full and comprehensive and yes, complicated, perception and identity of each person, including the former president, is to bring into the drama a more universal, less technical, (perhaps even less ‘woke’ attitude and perception) to the table.

We are not engaged in a simple truth-fiction conflict; we are engaged in a ‘literal/nominal/superficial/reductionist’ tension with a perception that sees beyond the view at the ‘wrong’ end of the telescope. Let’s turn the telescope around, embrace the wider and more complex and more nuanced and also more archetypal and symbolic inferences, not only in our own lives, but in the discussion, debate  and confrontation of our most intractable political issues.

If the insurrection, the various impeachments, and the continuing headline drama do nothing more than transform the cultural, linguistic and perceptive orientation of the nation, first, and potentially the world (given the potential leadership that continues to lie with the U.S.) from the minimalist, literalist, nominalist, reductionist, superficial to a more imaginative, poetic, archetypal, symbolic and universal language, attitude and series of actions, we might escape the kind of cognitive dissonance and its entrapments that hold sway on so many fronts.

The COP27 conference in Sharm el Sheik is said to be wrestling with words like “loss and damage” in the third world, from carbon emissions in the developed world, and the consequent responsibility on those developed nations to contribute to the costs of the “loss and damage” to those developing countries from global warming and climate change. Such an initiative has been for years resisted by the developed nations, to their own peril, given that the rising temperatures impact us all. Opening to perspectives free from cognitive dissonance is not applicable only to the derailing of another term of anarchy in the United States; it is also inherent in our conception of many of our shared issues, problems and threats.

Deposing, or bringing down, or removing Putin, for example, while it will likely only happen by the uprising of the people of Russia, could, nevertheless, begin by a legal case against him in absentia, for war crimes, invasion and crimes against humanity. Daily reports of a myriad of missile attacks on the infrastructure in Ukraine, can tend to overshadow more important, and perhaps less visible and less dramatic work behind the scenes on other ‘fronts’ of this war. Coverage of the bombs and missiles, however, should not be permitted to eclipse those important nuanced and diligent efforts.

We are and can demonstrate that we are creatures who need and deserve more than the fast-food of dramatic and sinister headlines, manipulated by those devious and weak enough to rely on both our permission of our own seduction and their insatiable need for dominance. We need to shift to more common sense, more poetic, archetypal and more symbolic and hence more integrated and connected and shared perceptions, on the political front, the military and national security front, the medical and legal front and the academic front.

Pigeon-holing issues, individuals and shared threats into manageable bites and bytes, in order to feel that we are more in control, is only another of the many shared cognitive dissonances, and poetic starvations, in which we are all living.

Surely, we are both stronger, more courageous, and more imaginative than to permit this kind of dumbing-down to be our intellectual diet. We all know that we are ‘starving’ in the metaphoric sense.

#Literalism: (from is defined as adherence to the explicit substance of an idea or expressions; and fidelity to observable fact

*Nominalism: (From Oxford Languages): the doctrine that universals or general ideas are mere names without any corresponding reality, and that only particular objects exist,; properties, numbers, and sets are thought of as merely features of the way of considering things that exist.


Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Reflections on "connections" and 'discourse'...

 What I value is the naked contact of a mind. (Virginia Wolfe)

Inscrutably involved, we live in the currents of universal reciprocity. (Martin Buber)

Bad eyes are only one bane of clear vision; bad assumptions can be just as blinding. (Peter Watts)

As connected as we are with technology, it’s also removed us from having to have human connection, made it more convenient to not be intimate. (Sandra Bullock)

The opposite of addiction is human connection. (Johann Hari)

With the dark experience of years of a pandemic, many people are talking, writing, and even profiting from the business of how and why to concentrate on the business/initiative/enterprise/dynamic of connecting to other human beings. In the middle of a technology saturation of much of our awake time, there is a veneer of connection in and through the devices we all carry around in our hands, purses, pockets, cars and offices. Business, that once required both paper and face-to-face meetings, can now be effectively managed through the mutual use of the Cloud, Google and Apple. Deals can even be negotiated remotely through Zoom, or one of many other platforms.

Twitter, once the most popular ‘opinion-conveyance’ machine, has fallen into disrepute after the musk-make-over.

A quarter century in English classrooms, literally and pedagogically, and as one reported to have emerged from the womb ‘uttering sounds’…I have some experience with some range of both the lubricants of connection and conversation, and also with the ‘grains of sand’ that confound connection and communication. Whether in the process of ‘introducing a Wordsworth poem to a grade twelve class of adolescents, or selling a hind of beef to a resort operator, or writing a radio commercial for the purpose of welcoming potential tire-kickers into a showroom, there are some common ‘elements’ that favour a reasonable reception as well as a list of ‘don’t go there’s’ for anyone seeking to be effective.

Most of these do’s and don’t’s, however, can be and are the subject of business communication classes, textbooks, and likely even online menu’s. As prescriptive, extrinsic, learned, and deepened by repeated conditioning, one adapts to those ‘communication skills’ that foster, and promote ‘reciprocity’ that welcome moment when another ‘gets’ whatever message it is that you have ‘sent’ and responds with a mutually energetic, affective and engaging “message” of their own.

The public square is filled with interviews, news reports, commercial messages on radio and television, as well as on many websites, all of them wrapped in language that has been researched, analysed, dissected and deployed to engender the ‘desired’ impact, another of those ‘things’ for which detailed measurements are recorded, curated, analysed and tweeked. We live in an age in which technology precedes, intercedes, and follows on the heels of our communication, and while the summative impact of that dominance, on the armies of “message merchants” registers the signatures of their professional reputations, on the rest of us, the consciousness of such ‘machine-like’ detection can only be negative at least on our sub-conscious and unconscious.

Conditions of privacy, repeated over and over again, in the process of building something we commonly call trust, have flown ‘south’ like the Canadian geese in their winter migration. Growing up with telephones, which we believed we not ‘monitored’ or recorded, offered some basic privacy for those conversations we regarded as highly important, especially those between people in whose live we had significant interest and who, we believed, had considerable interest in our lives. Saying what we most intimately coming from the deepest wells of our minds and hearts (metaphorically and literally) seemed safe, natural and very confidential. I can recall walking after dinner on many cold winter nights to a phone booth, a few hundred yards from our home, in order to stand there, with the door closed, in order to have a private phone call with the young co-ed in whom I was then very interested in talking with. Never was I bothered by the temperature, willingly sacrificing warmth for privacy. I even kept the purpose of my ‘going out’ secret, declaring, when asked, “I just went for a walk” rather than disclosing the real purpose for my absence.

Never did it cross my mind, during the winter of 195-59, nor has it in the ensuing years since, that whatever was said in those conversations was or would even be disclosed to any other person, including both families and friends. There were, to my mind and perception, no eyes or ears peering into those conversations. It was, in a word, ‘safe’ space.

Three quarters of a century later, however, no adolescent male would even consider standing for an hour in below-zero (F) temperatures for the purpose of taking with a co-ed in whom he might be interested. First, he doesn’t have to; next, why would he, when the pathway to ‘getting in touch’ lies right in the palm of his hand, and also in hers. And third, even while talking, both faces and environments are accessible to both ends of the ‘call’. Whether or not the spectre of ‘disclosure’ in the event that some other person, agency, or business might desire to ‘learn’ about the existence of the call, and potentially even the content of the call, could/would be a factor for both parties to consider. ‘Big brother’, however they decide, looms everywhere.

Technological ‘big brother’ however, is not the only ‘speed bump’ to human connection. There are other personal, internal, ubiquitous and pervasive emotional and psychological ‘speed-bumps’ to authentic connection that lurk in our culture, that we may or may not have taken account of. Especially in adolescence, when our sensibilities are radio-active, in regard to how we are being perceived, defined, reacted to and accepted/rejected by our peers, there is the prospect that our conversations might be recorded, video-recorded, and then repeated, in times and places that are not of our choosing. The issue of trust has taken on dimensions that our generation never       ` even had to consider, let alone confront and cope with.

Not only do we live with invasive technology all of it ‘purporting to bring us closer together in human communication and connection,’ we are also living in a time when the public discourse, in professional theatres, political committee rooms, on the public airwaves and even over the kitchen tables, has taken a 90 degree turn in the direction of ‘political correctness’ and moral appropriateness. A wrong word, uttered from the mouth, for example of a seasoned veteran and professional communicator at the CBC, can and will get her replaced. We have many ‘radio-active’ words, as well as actions today, that would have passed as ‘normal’ seventy-five years ago. While their negative import was not acknowledged, no doubt, many of them hurt people, often without those injuries being acknowledged or repudiated or forgiven.

Schools, for example, have been vacuumed for the potential of teacher-touching-hugging even the younger children, in the mistaken belief that such touching is an invasion of the privacy of those children. Kindness, and words and gestures that express and evoke compassion, have become ‘benchmarks’ for the reputations of teachers and school organizations, in the presumed pretext that kindness will foster academic, social, professional and economic and political success. Kindness, in the public arena, however, will not ever erase hate, contempt, bigotry and brutality in the private sphere. And any deeply-rooted notion that kindness is an antidote for hate is such a superficial and risky proposition as to be again, mis-guided.

In a recent interview with Steven Colbert on CBS, former first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, notes that the pandemic, in shutting things down, also separated us from each other. And that shut-down included her and prompted her to write a book looking for solutions to the rage, frustration and anxiety that accompanies isolation. Meditation, reflection, confronting her own fear and then writing about those processes are her attempt to start a discussion about getting ‘connected’ again.

Unburdened by the demands of active parenting, and the demands of serving as first lady, and also free from the struggle of having to earn a salary, the former first lady has had both the time and the inclination, the discipline and the resources to reflect, write, research and write, and for that many will be grateful. Even the concept of partnering, to which she dedicates a chapter in her book, she acknowledges, is not without its challenges. In response to Colbert’s, “I usually tell those who ask me about the secret to a successful marriage, ‘It’s never a loss to say I’m sorry!’, Mrs. Obama responded, “I think that would be good advice for Barack!” and in an aside over the audience’s laughter, “Do you hear that honey?”

Working those tight spots out, rather than exiting the partnership, (unless your partner is crazy, when you should get out fast), was another of Mrs. Obama’s attempts to go behind the glitter and the dazzling appearances of the limelight. The title of her new book, “The Light we Carry” is subtitled, ‘overcoming in uncertain times’. “When we are able to recognize our own light, we become empowered to use it,” she writes. Really another ‘how-to’ book from a prominent public figure with a well-intentioned motive, to help us connect, will be read by many and remain out of the reach of millions.

Finding and acknowledging our light, while aspirational and inspirational, is another metaphoric caveat that nevertheless, also makes the issue of ‘connecting’ and the ‘community’ that is a hoped-for ‘working together’ to solve society’s many problems. However, the notion of having authentic conversations by itself, is worthy on its own merits, outside of and detached from any motive of social corrective and community building. And in that light, it attracts mostly transactional attention, in seeking and securing help for a project, including the project of operating a business, a classroom, an ecclesial liturgy, a medical consultation, a legal debate, or even the domestic chores of managing a family. And given that fear is not constrained by circumstance, addressing our own, as part of the process of ‘opening’ to others, we would all do well to take her counsel into active consideration.

However, individuals addressing private fear, to this scribe, seems a long way off from the social conventions that attend to our cultural norms for what we each have been ‘conditioned’ to consider effective, authentic and connecting conversation. There was once a cliché that reined in public conversations away from politics and religion altogether and admired those who conversed about the weather. The dichotomy of ‘consumer-supplier’ as social roles, by definition, can restrict conversation to the needs of the transaction, overlaying a kind of cosmetic set of guidelines, teaching those guidelines, practicing them and embedding them in our interactions.

Conversations that ask probing questions, speculate about new research, offer insights that might address perceived anomalies are rare and often uncomfortable. One recent facebook screen put it this way: “Whenever I noted an issue that I thought needed attention, I invariably became the problem.” While Mrs. Obama acknowledged her fear of change, in her resistance to acceding to her husband’s dream of becoming president, and offers ‘tools’ for overcoming negative emotions in uncertain times, we are all enmeshed in a culture that reinforces superficiality and political correctness in most of our encounters, and the fear of being known by another and thereby being ‘found out’ as being less than adequate/acceptable/easy to get along with/deferential/modest/fitting in….pervades our culture.

Another person who is ‘different’ even in such simple aspects as the correctness of the grammatical constructions they use, inevitably encounters raised eye brows, frowns, and an emotional turn-off. Change, in the form of the unexpected, the different, the new perspective, new nationality, new academic scholarship, change in social, economic or political status are all speed-bumps on the road to healthy and open and authentic encounters. An example, from a encounter, that indicates this observation: On joining a social service club composed of a variety of mostly retired men and women, one retired clergy was admonished, privately, out of auditory range of others, “Don’t bring that priest shit in here!” Doubtless, no one in that member’s quarter-century membership had ever admonished him never to bring his “geographer’s shit” into the club.

Social exclusion, while based on fear, far exceeds the dimension of encountering our personal light and empowerment. And while we as individuals have an opportunity and even an obligation to face our fears and find our inner light, that solitary and quasi-spiritual ‘project’ will smooth some of the domestic, personal and intimate conversations; meanwhile, public discourse will continue to be encumbered by a shared obsession to distance, and to detach and to remain objective, leaving the subjective to the poets, the artists and the therapists.

“Divides” seem inherent in the landscape, while “bridges” require construction over ravines, and tunnels through mountains of granite.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Inclusive theology and notions of God....please!


“My scientist friends have come up with things like ‘principles of uncertainty’ and dark holes. They’re willing to live inside imagined hypotheses and theories. But many religious folks insist on answers that are always true. We love closure, resolution, and clarity., while thinking that we are people of ‘faith.’ How strange that the very word ‘faith’ has come to mean its exact opposite.” (Father Richard Rohr)

 I found this quote on the social media page of a former supervisor of my ‘time’ attempting to serve in an Episcopal mission in the United States. We had nothing in common in our highly conflicted relationship for the brief time I was ‘under his supervision’. And, now, some twenty-two years later, I find this quote to illumine the psychological, intellectual, spiritual, theological and epistemological chasm that existed all those years ago.

The intersection of the imagination in the realms of science and theology, rather than constituting a dividing line, serves as a path into the fullness of both realms. Scientists ‘living inside imagined hypotheses and theories’ when compared to ‘religious folks insisting on answers that are always true’ are not divisible into realms of empiricism (truth) and myth (hypotheses and theories). This false division results from constricted adherence to a language and an epistemology, an attitude and a perspective that requires one field be elevated over another, for the purpose of serving the ‘love (of) closure, resolution, clarity’ a penchant that has partial relevance to human existence, but, is and can only be considered a ‘partial’ and an incomplete and a magnetic attraction for those who chose it, call it faith and then dismiss science as antithetical to faith.

Any theology that bifurcates the universe into God (truth, closure, resolution, clarity) and ‘principles of uncertainty and dark holes’ serves as an insult not only to God but also to the concept of a relationship between humans and God. And, frankly and sadly, it is the determination to segregate God (truth, closure, resolution, clarity) from ‘science’ (principles of uncertainty, and dark holes) that demonstrates a depth of insecurity in search of ‘security’ that betrays the very theology it pretends to uphold. Scientists, themselves, acknowledge that they are working every day to ‘discover’ on the edge of previously ascertained principles and theories, not only the limits of those concepts but the light even those limits cast on mysteries waiting to be ‘scratched’ with whatever insights seem to begin that process. They, especially those fully engaged in the discipline of “awe and wonder” that keeps them focused on their research, their speculation, their inferences and their blind alleys, are the first to acknowledge that they are walking into the unknown, and their attraction to the mystery is both motivating and also humbling. To demean ‘principles of uncertainty and dark holes’ as compared with the ’truth’ as faith in God, is to manifest a kind of reductionism that not only cripples the pursuit of a relationship with God, but endangers all those who might succumb to such a crippled and rigid and life-defying false security that God is outside of, separated from, distinct from and antithetical to those very ‘principles of uncertainty and black holes.’ There is an assumption of ‘power’ over in the heart of the observation that renders uncertainty the antithesis of God and truth. And that “power” implicit in the clinging to the absolutes and the closure and resolution and   clarity of faith strips faith itself from much of its own fullness.

Worshipping God, in a Christian community, however, has been so compromised, even squeezed, in this quote, and in the theologies being perpetrated on thousands, if not millions, of people, in the name of what those prosletyzers consider their “God” of the New Testament, that the absoluteness of their ‘faith’ compartmentalizes their application of that faith into tightly closed, secure and impenetrable boxes of “good” and “evil” in a way we have come to know as Manicheanism. The absoluteness of the conviction that abortion is evil is only one of the more prominent applications of this ‘theology’. Doubtless, that conviction carries a certainty, a closure and a resolution, in the minds and the hearts of those who adhere to its ethical and moral purity as a part of their faith’s ‘truth’.

There are so many obvious and nefarious implications of this bifurcation of the secular and the sacred that one wonders how the issue can or will be resolved. “I know” is a phrase that has been provocative of thought from many able minds and hearts. And knowing, and how we know, as a study commonly known as epistemology, has featured prominently in the thinking and the writing of scholars and theologians for centuries. Knowledge and personal conviction, too, have been in tension for a very long time. And naturally those two notions intersect in human consideration of all topics, concepts, notions and, of course, one’s relationship with/to God. Faith, complete trust or confidence in someone or something, and a strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof’ (Wikipedia), and “the assurance that the things revealed and promised in the Word (Bible) are true, even though unseen, and gives the believer a conviction that what he expects in faith, will come to pass” is generally considered to have affective, cognitive and practical aspects.

Naturally, from an affective and cognitive perspective, ‘truth’ brings a clarity, a closure, and a resolution to one’s emotional anxieties about one’s relation to/with God that is comforting, supportive and reassuring. From a cognitive perspective, truth has the searing quality of certainty, confidence and foundational support that has the power to guide, energize and even to control individual lives. Practically, such truth also begs one to ‘offer’ its benefits to others, as consummation of its very own promises. Images of calmed seas, cured lepers, sighted blindness, forgiven harlots, feeding of many with very little, virgin birth, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension…these are all parts of the various narratives that undergird the truth of the Christian theology. And while they compel the whole of human attention, and for many, offer hope and healing in a very dangerous and threatening world, they, together and separately, depend on the limits to the human imagination and heart and perception for their existence, however, we might envision that to be.

 Defining the notions of certainty, closure, clarity and resolution as faith, also risks a degree of righteousness, superiority, and condescension, even hubris that, for this scribe, calcifies and oxydizes the pure and vibrating metal of faith. It is the mystery, the unknown and the uncertainty that offer a more grounded and effective window and opportunity for seeking God, with the full conviction that whatever appears to be “true” will be incomplete, uncertain, speculative and ultimately mysterious.

The human capacity for, indeed appetite and need for, the speculative, the uncertain, the mysterious and the uncertainty, as an integral and essential part of the search for God, offer a very different and challenging and engaging and life-giving path that differs significantly from the path of Rohr and his acolytes. Nevertheless, there are millions of “certainty merchants” among those who are peddling the Christian faith, in a nation and in the Western world, whose impacts are seriously corroding not only personal lives, but the very nations themselves. These ‘certainty merchants’ are effectively peddling security, confidence and what is presumed and assumed to be healthy parenting by, in and through a Father God. The source of all love, compassion, empathy, as God is so envisioned, is also a pathway to an effective reduction of disciples to ‘children’ in another of the several obvious mis-reads of gospel text. Matthew 18:3, reads: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The word “change” has been appropriated into a theology of conversion that requires a reversal away from sin, and an acceptance of the ‘saving grace of God’s forgiveness for sin. Not only is the tone of the verse parental and condescending, it is also easily and readily twisted to fit the fundamentalist agenda. There are other ways of reading this particulate notion. The notion of child-like wonder, awe, surprise and even ecstacy as not merely an emotional experience, but also an intellectual, and expansive experience of new insight, new vision, new collaboration and even a new creation seems, at least to this scribe far more in tune with the tenor and the spirit and the exaltation that are implicit and pervasive throughout much of what one reads and reflects upon in the sense of living a ‘full and abundant life’.

The same separation, constriction, elevation and superiority that lies at the heart of the Rohr quote above, and in the endorsement of that quote by a former supervisor, also lies at the core of the tragedy that besets far too many church theologies and their ministries in the last decades in North America.

When I was a young teen, I was invited to debate, in a fundamentalist, evangelical church the issue framed in these words:

Resolved that the Christian is obliged to remain separate from the secular culture.

I, unsurprisingly from the perspective of decades later, was assigned the negative side of this resolution. Also unsurprisingly, I did not win the debate. However, the basic concept of ‘divide and conquer’ has taken root in my consciousness, as firstly a strategy and technique of British monarchs, and secondly, the deployment tactic/strategy of unsecure and divisive and even subversive men and women whose responsibilities included the leadership of others, including those serving as clergy and mentors of lay people inside the church. Similarly, dividing academic ‘subject’ fields has always seemed to be another indication of the desire, indeed the obsession of defining the parameters of specialization, including the rules and regulations attendant on each specific “file”. Christians, or adherents of any religious organization that segregate themselves off from the rest of humanity are depriving themselves as well as the rest of us, of their potential to contribute to the resolution of those urgent shared needs to which we all need to contribute. Also, English scholars who segregate their research, investigation and interpretation of works of literature, for example, from the cultural rhythms and melodies in which the authors wrote, are blinding their scholarship from significant and resonating influences, including the author’s biography, which, too, cannot be segregated from the cultural ethos in which s/he lived.

God, an image to, for, about and from/to which/whom we ascribe various traits, aspects, powers, significance, need not be and perhaps cannot be encapsulated in a “human image” or in a scientific image (like the definition of energy as either or both waves and/or particles). The process of anthropomorphizing God, attributing human attributes, while perhaps easily rendered conventional and tolerable and even convincing from a cognitive and affective perspective, necessarily negates an objective/physical/astronomical/astrophysical/biological perspective, all of which cannot be considered “outside” the scope of any self-respecting deity. Indeed, it is our human obsession with reductions for the purpose of ‘understanding’ and the perception of ‘control’ that has embedded itself in so many of our discussions, research projects, and especially our theologies.

Dividing for the purpose of ‘comprehension’ pays homage to a limited cognitive capacity, without fully embracing all of the other “intelligences” like ‘emotional’ or ‘social’ or ‘political’ or even ‘scientific’. Similarly, in our management of social, cultural and political issues, our obsession to divide has outstripped its legitimacy in the workplace, again, as usual, from the perspective of attempting to protect one gender from the ‘abuse’ of the other. This “hard and fast rule” that co-workers of opposite genders must not enter into romantic relationships renders the feminine as “victim” by definition, without having to investigate, reflect upon, evaluate and consider any other hypothesis, for example, that both parties as mature adults, may well have explored the legitimacy and the appropriateness of their prospective relationship and do not need the critical parenting “officialdom” to punish their relationship.

Another instance, inside the Christian church, in which the God/good/ethics/morality/theological honest issue is compromised, if not in fact dismissed, certainly devalued, is the issue of the “Shadow” side of the church’s life. It is only by facing openly, and without shame, and with the open anticipation of new insights, new learnings, and new awakenings that the formal exploration of the dark side of the church’s life, including all of those stories that would, by the theology of exclusion, segregation and denial, keep hidden from public view.

Humans, individually and collectively, need not be entrapped by some “theological” or “ethical” or “moral” straight-jacket in the name of God, or in the observance of discipleship of that God that constricts either the framing theology or those whose inclinations draw them to examine, reflect, pray and even practice their ‘faith’. Indeed, it is precisely the obsession of many Christian theologies, like that of Rohr and others, that both distinguishes and also “extinguishes” those of faith from everyone else.

That proposition is sustainable neither as theology, nor as sociology nor as community, nor as a path to either world peace or saving the planet from burning up.