Message – as distinct from presentation (top photo)
Over the last few years, I have spent a good bit of time and energy objecting to some of our most popular dehumanizing narratives. Some have been offended, and loudly insist that their own anger and theories of essential wrongness-by-category are more important than the real human beings they find around them. I will always oppose narcissistic thinking like this (the thinking not the people, as important a distinction as the sin not the sinner), because it is so far disconnected from compassion, that when heads are turned this way, and they are properly flattered (far more often with assurances their rage is sacred, than their character and aspiration) they will countenance any manner and scale of crime done in their name and feel themselves entirely virtuous, even as the casualties mount. Mob man is not that hard a mental disease to get going, but you can look a long way back in history for positive examples, in vain. Not our best trick or look.
As for spoiled westerners who are convinced their outrage is itself precious? We can argue fine points and angels on the head of a pin all day long – and I will always insist that we cannot ever solve (any of) our problems by increasing our hatred of others. Wrong tool, which really have no right to anyhow.
What’s more, for all our modern assertions of unprecedented moral awareness, we (people in general) actually used to know this stuff. We recognized the hazards of mass fury, because our dads, grand dads or great grand dads had been traumatized by the consequences of this mass-mind madness let off the leash, the last time whole societies forgot we mustn’t simply hate, but instead must always seek, refresh and revere a broad practical and welcoming middle ground.
But once you take direct experience of disaster a few generations out, people begin to lose their connection to the lessons we were not ever supposed to forget. We start to think ourselves different – assert that those old limits do not apply to us, because we, uniquely in all human history mind you, no longer contain those old psychic poisons.
Sadly, this is the exact most-foolish delusion which creates and then grows the dangerous conditions we find ourselves in once again.
What humans actually are is bigger more complex and nuanced than any modern popular theories allow for. We are far more beautiful, tragic, amazing, despicable, hilarious, outstanding and mediocre than we are now capable of acknowledging out loud, and some have lost the capacity to even see this richness, as we insist that our representations are more important than what they are representing. Understanding takes work, it takes patience, it takes a willingness to suspend judgement, to allow for more subtle and insightful forms of witness, it needs empathy.
None of these are convenient, they don’t flatter us directly, or give us an instant homoeopathically dilute hit of dopamine. Nor are they useful for the purposes of marketers who want to bamboozle and exploit us. They require slow cumulative effort – and this work is exactly the stuff from which human character has always been built, as we overcome our own pettiness, and gratefully appreciate the extraordinary richness joy and understanding which is added to our world, as we learn to better respect and connect with others around us, no matter their backgrounds, experience or beliefs.
You might think I’m making too big and unflattering an assertion about too many of us (and I am always open to questions there), but the symptoms of this popular style of thinking by dehumanized categories, rather than with compassion and direct reality first, are everywhere around us.
I’ll give you a little one first, then get everyone way more mad at me with some sacred cow tipping, afterward. ;o)
Wrought Iron Nature
The other day I saw two young reporters discussing a study which found that middle-aged men prioritized close friendships much less than women of the same age. They bantered just a bit, then lightly decided we just didn’t think it was worth the bother.
Because men can now be casually summed-up as emotionless oppressors, rapists in waiting, exploiters, colonizers, male-gazers – just contemptible shit-heaps, really – or so one insanely toxic line of thinking runs (as if the widespread psychological abuse of young boys, by gleeful believers in this vicious paradigm, many of whom enter the teaching profession, is not absolutely guaranteed by every psychological and spiritual principle we know, to perpetuate pain and trauma for another generation, and still further beyond that).
Now – that point about male friendships thinning-out in middle age is not only true but socially important. There is (always) the question of underused potential for contribution, the scale of which is staggering beyond our imagining (and proportionately hopeful, in a backhanded sort of way), and also the never before so well understood mental and physical health consequences associated with the general social isolation which is now normal for so many of us.
But since I am a middle aged man, let me try to respond to that point in a way which might actually help increase the understanding of others. Even in ‘sophisticated’ western cultures men have far fewer basic social conventions than women, which allow us to acceptably express our affection or to assert any kind of weakness or need. This is a long term project we men must work on and ultimately solve ourselves, of course (though the emotional progress of men in my lifetime, has been truly staggering), but young men in particular, would certainly have a far easier time of it, if there was more kind sharing from people who do have compassion expertise, and a great deal less sneering and categorical dehumanization (always foolish and dangerous anyhow, practically and spiritually).
As far as I’m concerned, the reason for this friendship problem is beyond obvious. Once you get to a certain age, you have been hurt so often, by so many failed attempts at connection, epic misunderstandings, backstabbers and false starts that you just stop trying. Not because you don’t consider friendship to be precious anymore – but because you just can’t take the heartbreak you can all too clearly anticipate.
It isn’t because we men don’t feel, it is because we feel way too much, but have no reliable ways to express any of this painful feeling, or common understandings with which we might overcome it together, and rebuild those deep nourishing friendship bonds in the process.
Too personal? No worries – let me try something far more general, which you can confirm for yourself in front of the television or computer tonight (and I bet you’ll laugh, if you try).
Do you like documentaries? I love them, and have my whole life (though they are no longer the important inspirational cultural events that things like Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” once were, long ago). But I have to say, even as our technology has improved by multiples, our viewpoint approach has actually gone backward, to an extraordinary degree.
If I see one more smug middle class westerner travel to the exotic anywhere, and describe to me its fabulous wonders, I may just puke!
Please don’t get me wrong – I LOVE the wonders, but why the hell don’t they ask someone who actually knows the whole culture?
If we really wanted to learn about say, India, we would listen to what intelligent and insightful people who live in India, (who also have enough experience of our culture to understand where we are all complete idiots about them), tell us what they think is interesting about their part of the world. Something which reveals a clue about our rich adaptive humanity.
What we end up learning all too often, is what sort of things an ignorant idiot like us finds titillating. Which is all about celebrating our ignorance, not India.
Conversely, if we westerners really wanted to learn a few helpful and interesting new things about ourselves, we have a vast resource which we either gag, or else trot out for performative ceremonial purposes, mostly to put other institutions down, for not having thought of it first.
What is England, Canada or America really like? Why don’t we simply (that is respectfully and sincerely) ask the people who now live here, who also understand how life works elsewhere? Many of them are aware of options which we smug westerners consider impossible, and have seen them work practically, to benefit many. They have also seen other forms of social foolishness, and understand our popular madnesses are not unique, but more of a home brew flavour of a basic human thing. They see what we get right far more easily than we do, too.
I’m now following a few different journalists who were hired precisely to provide some minority commentary, but were then fired because they weren’t being ‘the right kind of’ whatever they were hired to represent, according to the (of course smug western idiot) management.
Even the extraordinarily charismatic (and superb) Canadian national news anchor Lisa LaFlamme, who won the hearts of the entire country by going grey on national television, (becoming twice as beautiful, with her courage and solidarity) as we all suffered through covid lockdowns, and the loss of so many of our usual rituals and vanities, was fired as soon as the panic ended. Because, one can only conclude, to those smug idiots, she was no longer ‘the right kind of female’ voice.
What is this foolishness? Why do we keep finding ways to put abstract (albeit passionate) symbols, ahead of precious genuine human beings and reality?
I am convinced that a big part of it is a general loss of hope. When you start from hope, you know the responsible thing to do is plan. When you have a problem before you which has never before been solved, that means studying your ass off, to learn how things work, and then trying to figure out how to make them work better. My weird generation X was right on the interface between some lingering glimmers of childhood hope (already slightly nostalgic, but still accessible to us, because of many older folks with much wisdom and experience) and the brutalizing hopelessness with which every generation after us has been bombarded from the cradle.
The boomers did have the shock of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the future of their childhood was supposed to be a wealthy scientific utopia. For my generation, we worried desperately not only about the cold war nuclear threat, but acid rain, overpopulation, industrial contaminants and air pollution, for many years of our young lives – long long before we could vote or drink.
I am still trying to think of some way in which all of that worrying moved the needle (aside from inspiring a hilarious song about political corruption and pollution, when I was eleven).
Brute Force Delicacy
I can remember when recycling was introduced in our jurisdiction, with a ‘generous’ contribution from the coca cola company. I also noticed that other provinces which were holding out, were insisting on a high proportion of the soda in their region being sold in recyclable glass bottles.
Not us though, we got a free round of blue boxes from the soda giant (cost them less than a quarter million dollars), and in exchange we lifted our own glass bottle proportion rules, and let the whole industry flood the market (and world) with megatons of aluminum and plastic bottles instead. (megatons really is the right scale-descriptor for this, isn’t it?)
I’ve watched people respond to this public virtue program for years now, with great interest. I’m sure you all know a few who are recycling scolds, and will give you shit if you don’t get every single package in the correct container, even if they just changed what goes where a week ago!
But it never occurred to me to ask – how do we close this loop, and bring all of this material back into use again?
The answer is, we don’t. We’ve been lying about this program for years, shipping our ‘recyclables’ overseas to make them someone else’s problem. As if the Philippines, (which finally had enough of this, and sent an entire ship load back to us) has a better technological infrastructure for high-end low-pollution materials conversion than we do in Canada.
Way beyond crazy, (colonialist, to a tee) and also grossly dishonest. To do this right, we would be mandating specific materials with known chemical conversion paths and follow-on uses (with proven commercial viability, to truly close the loop), and also requiring adequate processing capacity to destroy the exact same volume of material as that produced and sold within any given region. That is, we would clean up our own mess, (instead of being psychopaths about it) by using hope, planning it carefully, and making it all actually work for real.
Some recycled material is brought back into the production cycle, but there is always a serious energy added cost to doing this. The main thing we ought to realize is that even if we were doing recycling ideally and entirely honestly (which no one is, anywhere) that would still only accomplish three percent of the materials consumption change which many now say is required, to keep the atmosphere from getting even more dangerously unstable.
So – wait, what? The same people who tell us the world is doomed if we don’t let them start throttling the economy and throwing billions into severe food scarcity and poverty (yes, more smug idiots, but this time insisting that the only moral course is genocide) also know perfectly well that the only direct tools they’ve given citizens so far, are completely irrelevant, compared to the damage done by the destruction of recycling requirements which were already built into legislation which was utterly destroyed, right when we started it? WTF?
We’ve now spent decades feeling virtuous and involved, while making no significant difference at all (in fact, making things worse, by drifting ever further from reality).
Makes me think of that legendary marketing campaign by Duncan Hines. They were trying to get women to stop cooking from raw ingredients, and instead use far more profitable factory packaged food, but no matter how great they made the flavour of their cake powder, women of the time simply did not find it satisfying to bake it for their families.
Not until they changed the directions and required that the baker crack one egg and add it to the powder and water. That was it, just one egg – but on a psychological level, that one cracked egg felt like putting care into the baking, and made their product an early breakout factory food hit.
We all love to feel we’re really doing something. Very few of us bother looking all the way upstream to see whether it actually achieves the results we suppose.
If you believe farmers (who want to feed people) are radical kooks,
and the WEF (who want to radically reduce the human population) are sweet progressives,
Well then buddy, have I got a bridge for you!
Let’s try something to upset those self-obsessed clean-fingernail spoiled middle-classsers who fraudulently call themselves left, nowadays. You want to know the most perfect definition of ‘settler mentality’ or ‘colonial arrogance’? Their assertion that what is wrong with the working class is that they have not had their racist sexist ableist classist morality interrogated and judged by a Spanish Inquisition of unqualified alienated imbalanced ignorant theoretical university blowhards, who are convinced that things like vocabulary and morality rise always in direct proportion (absurd). And far worse, that virtue is achieved not by developing capability and overcoming our own limits, but through causing damage to others, proudly and repeatedly. Power-Tripping Juxtapositional Visigoths.
The basic presumption of individual rights within working and educational institutions is now almost completely gone, in favour of a denouncement and grievance priority. Cui Bono? Who Profits? Institutional power, which finally has the trap door of doom they have always wanted to silence dissent. Anyone deemed unprofitable, (or troublesomely principled and moral, for that matter) can now be reliably ejected without anyone daring to stand in their defence, for any moral flaw which can be found anywhere in their long semi-permanent online record. (this is actually worse than the Spanish inquisition in a way, because we are denied the defences of personal growth and merciful forgetfulness – and our lives are falsely compressed into a single besmirched moment, like no actual lives ever are).
My friends, healing and compassion are incredibly important social priorities (far more about this, soon), but you do not stop the farmers from planting the crops, just because people who like to pontificate in fashionable bakeries are upset (not unless you want a whole lot more people to be upset in a much bigger way, very soon after).
If this whole pretend-morality of denouncement wasn’t a bourgeois, destructive, dehumanizing, working class oppression play, it would feel like loving outreach and growth, the only forces which have been proven to reliably heal, educate and bind us humans in love. Not fear, intimidation and what a poet friend of mine once brilliantly described as “Theft of pleasure”.
Every time someone types the hashtag # symbol, they are breezily asserting that the six million human beings who died (so far) in the Congo, thanks to weapons and bullets that our consumer demand absolutely paid for, just to make our cellphones cheap enough to be disposable, do not matter. To begin by saying six million lives don’t matter at all to you, but then follow that with the assertion that they do matter, is just weird. Not paying attention to reality. Not noticing that words are not a logic-puzzle game, they are supposed to attach to meaningful behaviour.
And I’m truly sorry to be so harsh about this, but, every time someone who says they ‘hate big oil’ pulls into a gas station, they are saying, “Bomb a Yemeni kid for me today, frack something, and in a few years, please flood a few pretty coastal holiday towns for me, will ya?” This by their own stated moral framework mind you, not mine. How do we close THIS loop?
The destabilization of atmospheric homeostasis (a still simplified, but more representative way of describing our challenge) has been roughly understood for decades now. We have so called green parties, so called environmentalists, a whole ton of brats and media tantrums – and the result of decades of heroic posturing and hopeless youngsters is that our emissions are still steadily rising.
So how come the tantrumistas are still buying cars, and remain pathetic junkies for Congo-cidal cellphones? Still enjoying air travel vacations and consumer luxuries? Do we really want to save the planet, or do we actually want to assert our absolute right as westerners, to personally benefit from what we, in other contexts, describe as outright murder? There is a limit of one per customer.
Seriously – if we’re so concerned about the environment, how come we haven’t even got a campaign to completely ban gasoline leaf blowers yet? No technology on earth is more immediately obnoxious or more widely hated – and the motors on those damnable things are so inefficient, they give off more pollution than modern CARS (I wish I was kidding). Surely someone who truly gave a shit would at least propose that one tiny step as a good and wildly popular start (and then keep hammering on it, until it finally passed, so we could all get a bit of sleep on Sunday mornings again).
Lull in midtown weekday traffic
Tragically, the end-point of popular environmentalism as it stands, is actually a demand to end democracy. The sentiment is “I want someone to force others who don’t agree with my principles to live by them anyhow, even though I don’t believe in them enough myself to choose to make those sacrifices, and demonstrate sustained lifestyle contentment without the perks.”
Even the widespread idea that the earth has a ‘natural carrying capacity’ of around five hundred million people, which I am guilty of having said myself, I must confess up front, is based on the idea that those people must of course keep on behaving stupidly. What about the option where we show better behaviour? Demonstrate some character and principle?
Yes our western rich have ripped-off our domestic middle and working classes for decades, but we’re still rich compared to many overseas. We have surplus. You should see the other guy.
Problem is, if we keep on pleading for that “Stark Fist of Removal” long enough, there are plenty of rich and powerful scumbags out there who will be happy to take things away from us – our political voice in particular – and then gather up all those proxies, and use them to press home the vicious and sustained economic attack we have so long pursued against the global south.
They will give us an egg to break, and we can throw shit at a painting and be widely celebrated, because this is a world of shallow performative imbeciles. But they will not ever sell us a hammer that can break through their door, or a digital tool, with which we can truly challenge their power.
If there really was a mass movement for environmental sanity, anywhere in the western world, you would know that because they would have spent the last thirty years straight, acting from (and cumulatively building) hope, which is to say planning and working their asses off. Not on “this makes me feel good” projects, but on actually following all the way down to the source, and making sure the entire system actually WORKS.
I hate to say it but – planning like a responsible manager (who wanted to deserve to keep their job).
The difference is simple. One way we get to feel heroic and grandiose, as we keep losing ground (and biosphere resilience) forever, until we finally hit crop failures and mass scale human die-offs. (might we fairly dub this the righteous genocide path?)
The other way, we get over ourselves and train the heck out of ourselves, to be the kind of people who can (and do) actually make it. (That is – way less whiny and self-important, way more capable, scientifically literate, patient, cooperative and compassionate – which, not incidentally, also means living incomparably happier and more meaningful lives).
The panic we so widely feel, comes because we refuse to see our true hope – each other – as brothers and sisters – and instead seek righteous hatred and division most and first, even where nothing but our own overcoming love would ever suffice, by our very own moral standards.
We can do better than this. Where we are most ignorant, a real person that a powerful creep or corporation has trained us to hate or dismiss, can easily teach us and help us grow.
This is completely symmetrical, to be clear. Those who start from emotion can often heal hurt hearts who the more stoic and practical could never reach. But I can’t help noticing that the people I know who are gun owners, also tend to own and know how to use advanced tools in abundance. The very range of practical techniques which are required to make hopeful visions into manifest realities.
So many potential community resources are turned sour with our mutual suspicion and simplification, instead of understood and respected for both difference and high capability.
Now I’m going to be a really dumb white boy for a minute and ask a question of my Chinese friends. Was there a movement in Chinese history which sought to abolish one half of the monad? A cult of Yang only perhaps, and a grand assertion that balance was no longer necessary?
I honestly don’t know the answer to this question, and would not trust the English language internet to give me an answer which would seem relevant in a Chinese context anyhow (why I put it in the form of an actual, not just a rhetorical, question). But I would predict the results (even if Yin alone was favoured) to be disaster.
And I can’t help thinking that we’re pretty much running that experiment in the mirrorless neolib free-fall breakdown west right now. Arrogantly pretending that we, unlike all previous self-designated sophisticated humans, have finally transcended any need for humility and balance.
Which actually makes a pretty sweet and economical definition of hubris, doesn’t it?
Goeth before a fair? Goethe before a fart? No wait, I’m close though, right?