Tuesday, December 6, 2016

narratives of violence

           Physical events have a symbolic aspect making it possible to construct "narratives" (sacred stories, myths, ideologies..) from physical events ( whether real or imagined). In practice, story creation involves collective editing. The group - society - selects which facts, actions, attitudes are "real", "important" or acceptable.

Anatomy of violence, Deepa Mehta film

            Indo-Canadian film-maker Deepa Mehta's recent film deals with a gang rape which fatally injured an Indian medical student a few years ago. Mehta agrees that the young men (one was even married) were "monsters" and needed to be punished. She wanted to explore the question of how (and, perhaps, why) society creates such monsters.

            She focused on causal factors like poverty which debases and degrades sensibilities, cultural norms which tolerate physical (and, to some degree, sexual) abuse of children, a machismo psychology which devalues women and glorifies male violence and toughness. As Mehta realizes, the problem of gender inequality knows no national boundaries even if it manifests a bit differently from place to place and one historical period to another.

            Anthropologists see human culture as a (more flexible) replacement for instinctive behavior patterns. Even if cultures don't allow individuals much more freedom than fixed instinctual patterns do, human cultures themselves are less constrained and more rapidly adaptable in their expression than "instinct dominated"  animal societies. The individual human may not be much - or any - "freer" than the average animal but human groups possess superior behavioral suppleness and adaptability because of human culture. 

           Periods of extremely rapid transformation such as we are living through today, provide particular challenges. The old Roadmaps of Reality that once worked no longer do, or they are no longer believable or no one wants to reach the old destinations  anymore. Such times inevitably show a rise in "insane" behaviors. Over the years I have heard several comedians complain that satire becomes impossible in a world in which today's parody is tomorrow's headline news: think, the Trump presidential campaign and election! Who would have thought it possible just a year ago. Trump himself is a self-parodying modern narcissist..


          The following article deals with some of the problems of living in a time of transition. As colonizers we occidentals were raised with the foundational myth that we were bringing the One True Religion in order to save the souls of the Heathen from eternal punishment in Hell's fires. (Later, after the Enlightenment and Scientific Materialism, a new foundational myth was needed to justify European rapacity in the colonized world: White Supremacy. Darwin's evolutionary theory was press-ganged to justify and rationalize colonial exploitation: superior races are destined to dominate / eliminate inferior ones in the universal struggle for survival..


           The following podcast gives some insight into just how strong the human "herd instinct" really is. Once we have committed  ourselves to some cause or course of action, we assiduously sweep aside all data that do not conform to our current position (note 1). One can easily see that, under technologically primitive conditions, such behavior would probably have been "selected for" by evolutionary pressures such as endemic competition with other human or proto-human hunter / gatherer groups for limited resources. The question now arises as to whether such behavior has negative survival in world of space rockets, genetic engineering and nuclear bombs. In our evolutionary past most of our worst problems probably came from the natural environment. Our collective "ecological footprint" was small, our impacts on the environment limited in scope, intensity and duration. Today, with advances in technology, we - not nature - have become the source of our own worse problems. 

           In the archaic Past, blind obedience to a charismatic leader may have had survival value but as World War II demonstrated, in "advanced" industrial societies, these ancient patterns of behavior may prove lethal..

           A CBC journalist visited towns along the route of the Kinder Morgan pipeline (western Canada). This pipeline is going to be updated, tripling its capacity to carry oil from the center of the country to West coast ports for export. People in smaller, remote communities accepted unhesitatingly the multinationals' false equation: a healthy environment means job loss. Thus in the collective mind, pipelines become equated with economic security and "Progress". 

           The multinationals' stranglehold on the mass media provides them with a propaganda victory. The fact that renewable energies tend to be less capital intensive and more labor intensive - thus creating more jobs per dollar invested than highly centralized fossil fuel or nuclear energy systems - appeared to be universally rejected by all the people interviewed. Some people did nuance their enthusiasm for Big Oil with a desire for increased security in transport but none challenged the Great Lie: Jobs OR Environment.


                  Rationalizations. "Pipelines, at least, are safer than rail transport of petroleum". But the root questions never get asked. What do we actually need energy for? Are there better sources than the one's we rely on today? Do we really need all the energy we consume to do the things we want to do (that is, can we do things more efficiently)? And - of course - what should we really want to do (that is, what constitutes the Good Life)?





             Even out in the - supposedly - tree hugging West Coast, British  Columbia, "tangible concerns" like jobs and transport security trumped worries over the long term effects of greenhouse gas emissions. In Burnaby BC, risk to water quality and local scenic beauty was the Big Issue. No one gets the Big Pic, that in a Self-Organizing System like nature, everything is connected to everything else.. You can't do serious injury to one part without its impact being felt elsewhere.




1- Cognitive dissonance. We favor "Roadmaps of Reality" that are internally logically consistent. Data, arising from the environment (social or physical), which doesn't fit with our world view are ignored, denied, under-rated or re-interpreted to make them fit.

 "anxiety that results from simultaneously holding contradictory or otherwise incompatible attitudes, beliefs, or the like, as when one likes a person but disapproves strongly of one of his or her habits." 

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