Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Of Assassins, Headline Crime and Faith

From http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2016/07/25/sagamihara-
And yet we reel once again, from a crime and the symbolism that gets attributed to it. We reel while still reeling and trying to absorb at a time when the inability to absorb may suggest a rock-like hardness or impermeability. Attributing hardness and sticking to that suggests a bleak coldness of heart has come over us collectively. While it is easy to find pockets where sympathy has been ossified out of the heart, it is the hardness of head and certitude of thought, the over-reliance on first conclusion that contributes far too much hue and cry. Each crime that we hear of, regardless of the scale, seems to come with the travesty of the act but also an assault on the possibility of reflection. Assumptions are shared impulsively without the recognition of pattern that brings clarity to the crimes or to the myriad sides of the discussion.

There was a time when assassins were assumed to have had a political motive for their actions and in the last century that pantheon of criminals, from Gavrilo Princip to Lee Harvey Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan were attributed the motives that we assumed included some degree of hunger for fame or significance. Little thought was given to the psychology among those individuals that set them on the path that lead them to the murders they committed. Frankly, the consequences were too significant for entire nations or continents for anyone to do a forensic psychological investigation, if this science was professionally practiced. 

Mark David Chapman's murder of John Lennon raised the question of whether or not it was actually an assassination or "merely" a murder. Indeed the victim was a famous man, but the consequences did not clearly alter the course of history the way other assassins did. The other significant thing that accompanied the Lennon murder was Chapman's possession of The Catcher in the Rye. That, the book was to blame for the murder according to some grossly uninformed, meaning-seeking sources and nearly four months later John Hinckley's obsession with Taxi Driver and Jodie Foster was cited as contributing to the attempt on President Ronald Reagan. Taxi Driver seemed to survive its moment of infamy better than Catcher, which may has been cited several times for possible links to crimes among its readers.

In the years that have passed there have been other members of society who have dissociated themselves from society or family and in turn committed crimes that have appalled, shocked and dismayed us. In the aftermath of the school shootings at Columbine in 1998 people tried to pin the connection to video games and The Matrix.  In 1990, Judas Priest was sued for the influence their music had on teens who had committed suicide. Time and time again people trying to find cause for such crimes stop at the most superficial answer and settle for it rather than pursuing the question more deeply and looking at a pattern that is consistent throughout a larger series of crimes or patterns of behaviour among those commit them.

Such a suggestion would never prompt those who attribute crimes directly to one's faith to pause and look more deeply for the dissociation that prompted them to commit their acts. The possibility is that, among those criminals who only have a superficial interest in a particular faith and clearly follow a pattern of behaviour that is in clear conflict with the tenets of a faith. Before criminals chose to associate themselves with a particular genre, novel, movie, line of employment or religion, they dissociated from the family or circle of support that ensured they remained conscious of and connected to the entire society. Before they sought to kill or main soldiers, diners, commuters, shoppers, jocks, school kids, the disabled, members of a race, faith or tax bracket that they considered a threat, there was an incident or a pattern that detached them from the rest of society. That happened first. The murders or terrorist acts committed in Ottawa and Quebec in 2014 were by people who only had a tenuous connection with ISIS or ISIL and acted in a way that directly conflicted with the faith they wanted to cloak their actions in. They remained dissociative despite the opportunities to practice a faith that allowed and encouraged them to become part of a welcoming community.

Amidst all of the crimes that have marked 2016 and provoked arguments about, religion, race, weapons and whatever else people choose to argue over in the absence of clear, well-regulated debate occurred a crime that must be taken into account and included in the discussion as we try to determine what it is that causes these individuals to wreak the pain and misery that they do. Earlier today, a 26-year-old man in the suburbs of the massive Tokyo-Yokohama megalopolis returned to his former place of employment and killed 19 of the residents (or patients) in a facility for the disabled and injured another 20. He had aspirations of becoming a teacher, being one of those individuals that we as a society rely on to be the glue that helps hold society together but, as the Associated Press put it, "somewhere along the way, things went terribly awry." What attributed to this young man's slide toward the state of mind that prompted these murders is yet to be investigated. In the absence of a faith or explicit otherness that can be attributed to him by the Japanese media, they will have to grapple with the dissociation that gradually occurred in this young man rather than attribute it to one of the superficial causes that the Western media and the uninformed social media peanut gallery will attribute it to.
The investment of these criminals' energy in The Matrix, Catcher, Ozzy Osbourne, Taxi Driver, the Communist Party is ultimately incidental and the same can and must be said of religious faiths as well. All faiths have flaws and I am not going to defend the flaws of one over any other in this post. Catholics and Protestants in Ireland have had their roles in crimes beyond their borders but these are overlooked as other faiths are smeared. There are, however, devout Muslims who are nothing short of petrified by the pattern of crimes which are superficially associated with their religion. The first reason for this fear is, of course, the assumption among Westerners that they and their religion are a threat to peace and order throughout the world. The greater concern that many of them have, is the threat this pattern of crime may have on their children, their confidence in the faith they are raised in and its standing in the community. Parents, all of us, want to ensure that our children are raised to be empathetic and feel a sense of community and connectedness that will make us love, serve and support one another. That is the aspiration of most, if not all parents. The faith that we practice and pass on to our children is part of that sense of connection that we want to form among our children to ensure that they do not dissociate and cause such harm to themselves or to others. As the practice of faith becomes a more dangerous enterprise, as the commitment to this particular pillar of community gets called into doubt, these parents must raise their children exceptionally cautious and self-conscious about the purpose of their faith being questioned and denigrated with such exceptional and unbridled malice.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Confession Time: Distraction Over Engagement

It is Thursday and the past week has seemed painfully long, eventful and disturbing. Whether I look near or far, reflect on what has happened or get ahead of myself and anticipate the possibilities that the events seem to harbinger, there is much to make you want to turn away from the world beyond.

Terrorism in Nice, a coup in Turkey, the vitriol, miscues and misogyny that the Republican Party had presaged throughout the entire year, the thwarted terrorist attempts and the disaster-in-waiting Rio Olympics all make me want to don blinders or cast my eyes closer to home. Even here, however, with the burial of a murdered mother and child, the reflex to turn the eyes away, down or inward offers no relief. There is a local, seemingly intractable, scuttlebutt and protest against expanding transit service. When I conclude it is best to just stare at the ground and lose myself to my headphone entertainment during my regular walks and runs I see more dead birds strewn on the asphalt and the grassy berms than I've seen since I was 8 years old. (Not exactly a time when official records began to be kept, but the carcass count is well into the dozens.)

The last seven days alone could fill one of those year-ending collage blurs of news highlights tracing the course of the entire calendar back in 1983 when the peanut gallery was that much smaller and less-equipped, and I failed to mention the airstrike in Syria that killed an unconfirmed number of civilians or the African-American man who was shot in Florida while on the job with a young autistic adult. For each of these events, there seems to be this fury of response yay or nay to each and everyone of those events. I've responded in those clusters of social media frenzy, liking, retweeting, sharing or snarking about what's unfolding or how superficial or abhorently misinformed or hateful someone's position might be. The next seven could be the same.

But I have no confidence, whatsoever, that I have clue one about any of what is going on right now or how to distinguish between signal and noise. More often than not, our human tragedies incite this flurry of uninformed response, with all of us singing along with the choirs of our comfort indifferent to the cacophony that our knee-jerk impulses create.  When we contribute to the data load at computer servers to indicate our yay or nay on a topic or news item, we are doing it without giving the topic at hand or the articles on it their due consideration.

I've been conscious of how I do this - retweeting or sharing something without actually reading it.  I have done it regularly and the reality is that read through more of those, "if you are a friend of mine..." or "if you are reading this..." items (which I never share) than I actually read the articles that I share and retweet.  Evidence shows that I am in the majority. There are times when I do this deliberately to bookmark something for my own reference, but most of the time it is a brief click to say a little bit about myself or the things I am interested in or perhaps believe in.

How little I actually know.

Marshall McLuhan presciently envisioned a communications system that would serve as, or mirror the central nervous system of the planet (our collective conscience thoughts and concerns at a given moment) and the signals coming from that system, if it is our current internet or Web 2.0 indicate that we are entirely unaware of our almost Touretic insensitivities to others and on top of that have a case of ADHD. When I nudge a post into my circle of contacts all I am really doing is adding to the throb of rage, sympathy or sarcasm the post stands for without too much critical investigation into who are the most reasoned voices on a topic or what the biggest concerns ought to be.

And I am as guilty of information pollution as the most vitriolic, inane, click-happy Trump supporter, Brexit strategist, xenophobe or Kardashian groupie.  (I did manage to miss the recent tumult over Taylor Swift writing a song with her ex.  I'm still not sure what modicum of shame or shade needed to be thrown how hard in what direction over that.)

Instead of engaging in the dialogue via social media, the uninformed retweeting and sharing of unread articles merely tilt the signal from the nervous system toward the frenetic and away from the considered and rational.  At every moment, 24-7, there are opposing masses of people who send out signals with their posts, headlines and pithy 140-character comments but rarely do they delve deeply enough into the details of what they are reacting to or the positions that we purportedly support without taking the care to inform ourselves about the entire issue or the side that we are taking.  That toxic echo following each tragedy is the hue and cry of people who cling to their chosen certainties as if they were fact rather than belief.

The times we live in are incredibly uncertain, but our collective refusal to let our beliefs be challenged by the facts is a significant threat to clear thinking and discourse, even if you happen to be right.  We will never know if we are right and we will never battle test our positions or our thinking processes if we closet ourselves in echo chambers of our careful design and ongoing editing.  (Is it possible that we edit our friend and follower lists more judiciously than we edit our own posts or review what we are sharing?)

We continue to choose the distraction over engagement, just as we choose the narrow specifics of our view of the world: Darwin was wrong, someone else's religious fanaticism is the greatest threat known to man, Brady didn't do it, Melania didn't mean to, and on and on. There is the feeling that we need to know a little bit about everything: a belief that renders trivia essential while the deepest interpretations of our planet its workings and its problems are deemed too much trouble to undertake. This is not a promising combination for a world that needs informed humanity to ensure our safety and wellbeing.


Saturday, July 16, 2016

Comfort Zones and the Zone

Two weeks ago my son and I were wandering around downtown with our cameras when we came upon a street artist.  She was a mid-20's girl camped out on the pedestrian stretch of Stephen Avenue with an arsenal of spray paint cans, some bristol board, a few templates to work with an a clutch of black Sharpies of varying gauges. She worked at what appeared to be a brisk pace, but over time there were occasions when there was less certainty in what she was doing. She knew the techniques that she wanted to apply for the most part, but there were occasional quests for the right approach for a desired effect and occasional forays into improvisations that were painted over.

The retreats with approaches did not prove major setbacks. Her improvisations were while she was solo and applying the tools and techniques of a (spray) painter rather than a musician on a bandstand and subject to the threat of intolerant, impatient or superior bandmates. The only cost to her was in the efficiency of production.  If it took her another three, five or ten minutes to sort through her efforts to dapple a tree in cherry blossoms with one errant effect and then discarding it for something that was more routine but effective in this instance, there was nothing more to lose for it other than the increment of time spent on the next painting. Throughout the time we lingered there, she completed paintings in bursts of 10-15 minutes at a time and her audience remained engaged in the process they were witnessing and she was selling her $20 paintings before any of them dried.

She interacted occasionally with the audience. One middle-aged woman brought her a bottle of water. Friends happened by and briefly made plans. Money exchanged hands. Inspirations were discussed. She also mentioned that it was the first time that she was doing it in public rather than in her (or her parents) garage.

As I thought about the challenge of doing this work, especially what is regarded as private work, in public it raised the question of what exactly her comfort zone is and what it might allow or encourage in contrast to what she might allow herself and require of herself when she is essentially performing her art for an audience. In her own garage, which I'm speculating is a comfort zone, she might have been inclined to discard her error immediately, take much more time to contemplate the move around her error or just keep going until she ended up with something far removed from her intention.  With an audience, however, there was less luxury to paused and contemplate or shred the error in a fit of artistic pique.

There was a point where she had to perform the role of artist (or should that be artiste?) and conduct herself with an authority and confidence that was never required in the comfort of the garage. She did it without missing too many beats or pausing and dwelling too long or too hard on the puzzle she posed for herself. It was the move away from the comfort zone of the garage that prompted an uncomfortable period of discovery, error and innovation as she worked through completing her painting while an audience looked on quietly and expressing only interest and curiosity about her work and her process.

The move from the familiar setting that is one's comfort zone into a place where the comforts are gone and the pressures to improvise and produce can be a stimulating one that prompts a great deal of growth and redefines your abilities far more pervasively than a long stay in the comfort zone which may risk cultivating complacency and draw you into a rut.